Promo image from Breath of Kings

SYMPHONY IN THE CATHEDRAL

By Graham Abbey

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I woke up in upstate New York intent on an early start for my return trip to Stratford that day. I had spent the weekend golfing with several of my acting colleagues, and we had decided to test the limits of our luck and youthful stamina – not to mention several clauses of our Stratford Festival contracts – by leaving a foreign country on the morning of a two-show day.

I recall turning the car radio on shortly before 9 a.m. and trying to process the news that a plane had just struck the World Trade Center. As reports began to flood in that morning, my foot became increasingly heavy on the accelerator as I sped towards the border with several key members of our cast in tow. I had heard about an unwritten contractual obligation in all theatres that if you miss a performance you are obliged to buy out the house, and I had no intention that day of testing its validity.

As we raced up Route 219 (a stretch of which has since been renamed Flight 93 Memorial Highway) towards Buffalo, we heard word that Flight 93 had gone down a few hundred miles south of us. I remember watching the sky intently as we drove north through what felt like an active war zone, and realizing that the world as I had known it had changed in an instant.

We cleared the border seven minutes before the official shut-down and arrived in Stratford shortly before the 12:30 call. I remember walking down to the Tom Patterson Theatre to join a stunned crowd of actors at the stage door and patrons in the lobby who had gathered on their respective sides of the house, unsure of the protocol. There was some debate about whether or not we should perform that afternoon in the wake of such a tragedy, but I recall the late Douglas Campbell’s adamant plea that we must speak the words of Shakespeare’s great histories on that day of all days – and so the show went on.

I will never forget the opening lines of Henry IV Part 1 as they drifted into the ectoplasm of the Tom Patterson Theatre that afternoon: “So shaken as we are, so wan with care, / Find we a time for frighted peace to pant.” We all took a collective breath and began our journey, as actors and audience shared Shakespeare’s beautiful poetry in reflective communion.

After the show, Douglas Campbell addressed the audience as only Douglas could do. He spoke about holding the mirror up to nature and the difficulty of performing these pieces about war and vengeance as the dust was still settling from the fall of the twin towers. He likened the theatre to a cathedral where we had all gathered to find understanding and solace in the words of this great text.

That evening I performed Henry V across town at the Avon Theatre, and after the show I held a moment of silence with the cast and crew on stage, as audience members joined hands to remember those who had lost their lives that day. I then returned to my dressing room and moments later received a knock on my door. I opened the door to find a middle-aged man I had never met, standing before me in tears. He asked to come in, I gave him a hug, and he took a moment to collect himself. He explained that he was from New York City and he had spent the day trying to make contact with his wife and children, but to no avail. Since the borders had been shut down, he had spent the day frightened and worried in his hotel room, unsure of what to do. He then said something I have never forgotten to this day. He said, “The only thing I could think to do tonight was to turn off CNN and come and listen to Shakespeare.”

That was it. Something became very clear to me in that instant. That beautifully simple sentiment on that horrific day changed my relationship to Shakespeare’s histories forever. They were not in fact “histories” at all but living and breathing sermons, able to hold a vital mirror up to our contemporary collective conscience in the face of unspeakable tragedy. That day, the words that Shakespeare penned more than four hundred years ago echoed as loudly in the theatre as those of any politician on the airwaves, and actors and audience alike left the cathedral much different than when we went in.

And so began Breath of Kings and my fifteen-year relationship with the second tetralogy of Shakespeare’s brilliant cycle of plays. Often nicknamed “The Henriad,” these first four plays of the history cycle (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V) take us on an epic journey through two decades of English history, tracing the downfall of one king, the unease of the second, and the rise of a third.

Yet despite their scale and size, this tetralogy of plays is surprisingly personal in nature. The late Robin Phillips, former Artistic Director of the Stratford Festival, once told me he believed that at their very heart Shakespeare’s plays are domestic stories. That is, as much as we recognize the real-life chronicles of English kings and queens and the elusive castles they inhabit, Shakespeare always manages to distil them down to their human essence. At their core they are stories about husbands and wives, fathers and sons, mothers and sons, and families. And for me the great draw of Shakespeare’s history cycle is exactly that. While armies and nations collide on the fields of battle and reshape the large-scale map of English history, profound things are happening down on the street, inside the pubs and amongst the gardens of England that have as much impact upon the trajectory of a nation as the ordinations of monarchs.

As I have gone through several versions of this adaptation over the years, I have come to think of the entire piece as one great symphony that includes both minor and major chords. And so as one king deposes another in the high courts of the land, a gardener trims his shrubs and meditates on kingship and order in the commonwealth, and both have equal balance and weight in the mind and poetry of Shakespeare.

Much has happened in the world since that fatal day a decade and a half ago. Victories have been claimed under the familiar banners of power and progress. Yet for every act of rebellion there is redemption, and the great cycle begins again with a new generation of players and new scripts. And so, four hundred years later, we still gather at the cathedral to look for our reflection in the mirror of these great plays.

I want to thank you for turning off CNN today and coming to listen to Shakespeare.

Graham Abbey conceived and adapted this world première production of Breath of Kings.