On the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, actor Graham Abbey was on stage at the Stratford Festival, playing Prince Hal, the wayward son in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.
Hal’s father, King Henry, opens the play with the lines “So shaken as we are, so wan with care, / Find we a time for frighted peace to pant.” And on that afternoon, those lines had a whole new resonance for the audience.
“It was just hours after the planes had hit the towers,” Abbey recalled. “You could have heard a pin drop, as you can imagine.”
That same evening, he played the title role of Henry V, in which Prince Hal, having succeeded his father as king, goes to war with France. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a theatre where we were holding a better mirror up to nature,” he said. “On that day, in the midst of that, I was playing a young man, and a king, who was trying to talk about the morality of war. It was extraordinary.”
Abbey was also playing Hal in the second part of Henry IV, so his character’s journey encompassed not just two plays that season, but three. The experience set him thinking about an even larger project.
“I started playing around with the idea of adding Richard II at the beginning, as a kind of prologue to Hal’s journey, and seeing if there was a way to weave it all into one story.”
He spent more than a decade wrestling with this self-imposed challenge whenever the demands of his busy performing career permitted. “I hadn’t done anything like this before,” he said. “But as an actor I’d had several years of doing Shakespeare under my belt, so understanding the text and knowing what I wanted to cut came to me quite naturally. I studied politics at university, but my love was always writing and language. That’s what brought me to Shakespeare as an actor: a love of language.”
The result, on stage at the festival’s Tom Patterson Theatre this season, is Breath of Kings, a distillation of Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV, and Henry V into a matched pair of plays, subtitled Rebellion and Redemption. The text is still Shakespeare’s – with the sole exception of a brief prefatory scene taken from Thomas of Woodstock, an anonymous play of the period – but Abbey has edited it down and in a few instances rearranged the placement of scenes. “My goal was to expedite the audience’s sense of that journey,” he says, “while keeping intact what I call the main spine of the plays.”
Breath of Kings offers audiences an opportunity hitherto unprecedented at Stratford – to experience the whole arc of Shakespeare’s major tetralogy in just two performances. “To run all four of the histories at full length in one season would be unwieldy,” Abbey said, “but there are advantages to seeing them together. You get the sense of this sweeping journey through history. You get a sense of the long, cyclical turn of history. And you get the long journey of an incredible character in Shakespeare’s canon.”
To suit the fast pace at which that epic journey unfolds, the stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre has been reconfigured for the first time in more than 30 years. The upstage portion of the familiar elongated thrust platform has been made removable, and seats have been installed in its place, transforming the space into a theatre in the round.
“I felt it was important for us to do this, in terms of exploration and reinvigorating our approach to our art,” said Antoni Cimolino, the Festival’s Artistic Director. “The new configuration will work really well for the epic scale of Breath of Kings, with the ebb and flow of its action, the clashes between the various armies.
“But I felt it would also benefit the other two productions at the Patterson this season, both of which have domestic settings: Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman. An audience in the round creates a kind of cockpit, a dramatic crucible. The Tom Patterson Theatre is justly renowned for its intimacy, enabling audiences to really focus on the text. That intimacy is now available on all four sides of the stage, with all eyes directed inward to the centre.”
The change – designed to be easily reversible for future seasons as required – also broadens the range of theatrical experience on offer in the festival’s four venues, Cimolino said. “We now have all three primary theatrical configurations this season: two thrust stages, a proscenium arch stage and a theatre in the round.”
The challenge of staging Breath of Kings in this new environment has been taken up by Mitchell Cushman and Weyni Mengesha, who will co-direct the two plays (in collaboration with Abbey) with a cast of 18 actors. Abbey – who is himself in that cast, playing Henry IV – describes it as “an exciting adventure that will really stretch the muscles of the company.”
And for audiences, he says, the adventure will be one of discovery – or rediscovery.
“People who know those plays will find all their favourite elements here, the reasons they come back to see them again and again, but we’re also telling a new story. The idea is that you can see one of these plays and have a great time, but there are also extra rewards for theatregoers who commit to both parts.
“I think of it as an event. And Stratford is the only place that could make it happen.”
David Prosser oversees the content of the Stratford Festival’s large body of printed materials, including its house programs and Member publications. He has also worked on the Festival’s 50th- and 60th-season commemorative coffee-table books and on former Artistic Director Richard Monette’s 2007 memoir This Rough Magic. For the past several seasons he has presented the popular Lobby Talks series before selected performances of Shakespeare plays at the Festival Theatre; in 2016, he will also be giving presentations to Festival Members before selected performances.
A version of this article appeared in the fall 2015 issue of Fanfares, the Stratford Festival’s Member newsletter.