April 4, 2016

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” Those celebrated words, spoken by King Henry IV, might serve as a fitting epigraph for “King and Country: Shakespeare’s Great Cycle of Kings,” a sweeping, superlative presentation of four history plays — both parts of “Henry IV” bookended by “Richard II” and “Henry V” — by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Not until the hard-won triumph of Henry V over the French, establishing the kingdom as a unified entity at last, does a monarch depicted in these great plays have an entirely comfortable day at court, or possibly even a good night’s sleep. The second and more widely known of Shakespeare’s two history tetralogies, the cycle charts the tumult that roils the British kingdom under three successive rulers. To see the plays together, and in sequence, naturally emphasizes the continuity of the history they unfold. But more than this, one comes away in fresh awe of the infinite variety that Shakespeare, as no other dramatist, captured: robust comedy, plangent feeling, penetrating psychology, a grasp of dramatic tension and momentum, and above all, the thrilling alchemy of life and thought transformed into poetry. All four productions, generally in traditional dress and featuring handsome minimalist sets, are directed by Gregory Doran. And while there are, among these mighty 12 hours of theater, inevitably some sluggish patches, the overall achievement here — which includes one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, Antony Sher’s Falstaff — is nothing short of magnificent, a testament to the company’s welcome return to top form after its last visit to New York, in 2011, when it presented mostly unremarkable productions of five plays.