Clean, clear, and muscular, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s compare-and-contrast “Leadership Repertory” goes rummaging through two of the Bard’s big history plays (and at least one bit of apocrypha), looking for clues to what makes an inspiring leader and what the costs of leadership are for the one at the helm. It finds madness in great ones, flashes of heroism in the callow, uncertainty in a strong monarch’s dark hours, assurance in a weak one’s best moments. The pairing is intriguingly textured, exhaustingly long, often illuminating and—at its best—downright thrilling.
At the center of it all is Michael Hayden, doubling in the title roles of Richard II and Henry V. In him, Richard’s vacillations, as misfortunes mount and nobles defect, are magnified mirror-images of the more modulated doubts Henry addresses between battles at Harfleur and Agincourt; Henry’s swift judgments and steely resolve in the face of long odds and traitorous friends, meanwhile, become not some platonic ideal of kingly fortitude but hard-earned choices that exact an emotional price. In Hayden’s Henry you see what his Richard might have been with better seasoning; in his Richard, you see the traps his Henry may have avoided with that retreat from Falstaff and the tavern.
Surrounding all this vividly realized work are sibling stagings that, though they share Lee Savage’s brooding Gothic set and play off each other’s themes, employ separate strategies for clarifying the politics and the interpersonal dramas that drive these stories of conflicts and kings. Michael Kahn’s Richard keeps things simple, relying on adept actors, crystalline classical technique, and an almost lyrical physical staging to help audiences parse the complications in a play whose flowery language and self-conscious rhyming verse reflect the vainer preenings of its peacock king. (The addition of two explanatory scenes from an Elizabethan fragment titled Thomas of Woodstock—the sort of brazen textual slice-and-dice only a confident Shakespearean would dare—helps measurably.)
David Muse, who with Henry has a leaner, more sinewy story to sell, takes the same confident cast and sets them to playing a bit: He comes up with a novel way of delivering the Dauphin’s insulting tennis balls and divides up the narrator duties of the play’s Chorus among three archetypal personalities: a martial figure, a stage-managerial sort who’ll morph into a ministering lady-in-waiting for the scenes at the French court, and a tweedy academic who’ll grow increasingly skeptical of the play’s hagiographic tendencies as the evening goes on. It’s all both light-hearted and clever, and without giving too much away, let’s just say the bit with the military map and the laser pointer is a diversion that pays dividends.
Which is not for a moment to suggest that Muse’s is a lighthearted Henry. His Englishmen’s unchivalrous slaughter of their prisoners—the play is about a complicated king, remember?—takes place in full view of the audience; the corpses of Henry’s luggage-bearing youths, murdered by the desperate French “against the laws of war,” lie scattered on the stage throughout his ultimate triumph on St. Crispin’s Day, and the Non nobis his men offer to celebrate their miraculous victory is a ragged one, sung in a minor key. Here, on the bloody plain and in Hayden’s staring, glassy eyes, are the costs of kingship and of boldness, and after these shocks the happy negotiations that earn him a wife in France’s Princess Katherine (a charming, quicksilver Rachael Holmes, who doubles as Richard’s queen) seem a necessary tonic if an audience is going to keep Henry in its hero column.
Kahn’s reading of Richard doesn’t go so far as to argue that its protagonist is a hero overlooked, of course, but like other strong productions I’ve seen it makes a vivid case for a man who learns too late what his vacillations have cost him. Like Prince Hamlet, hapless King Richard moves along an arc from indecision to something approaching stiff-backed resolve, and if the readiness never quite becomes all for the dethroned monarch, he still meets his death like the fighter he never was as king. Hayden and Kahn make that end a piteous one, and they find as much emotional punch in the presentation of Richard’s lifeless body to his horrified successor as they do from the earlier exchanges between Hayden’s floundering, effete Richard and Charles Borland’s tall, wolfish Bolingbroke.
The resonances that keep chiming between the two plays are legion—note the way senior counselors get overruled by vain, hotheaded youths at the French court in Henry, and at the English in Richard; observe the fecklessness of Richard’s Lord Aumerle and Henry’s Dauphin, both played by a satisfyingly smarmy Tom Story—which is just the sort of dot-connecting that makes this sort of repertory a worthwhile experiment. That ultimately it’s a satisfying six-and-a-half hours among the movers and shakers of English history and a lively lesson in leadership in a town that makes a business of passing the buck? That, as the credit-card folks like to say, is pretty much priceless.