Promo image from Breath of Kings

THE HEAD THAT WEARS A CROWN

By Weyni Mengesha and Mitchell Cushman

“Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the king!
O hard condition, twin-born with greatness...”

                    – Henry V

In the 400 years since Shakespeare penned Richard II, The First and Second Parts of Henry IV, and Henry V, the systems of power in the western world have evolved from monarchy to democracy; but something has remained constant. We may have our parliament (as Richard II had his), but we still entrust, at least to some degree, the power of national decision-making to a single individual. What compels someone to seek a throne (be it situated inside a castle, an Oval Office or a boardroom), and what should we demand from those who sit upon them? These questions boom like cannons from every line of these quintessentially political plays. Today, it is impossible to contemplate Richard, Henry and Hal without considering Trudeau and Obama, Trump, Clinton and Sanders, Putin and Merkel and Gaddafi and Mubarak and the Koch brothers, and all the kings of our current age, elected, anointed or self-appointed. We have tried to breathe all of these giants into our kings, and, just as importantly, into those who inflate and deflate them: the flatterers, the revolutionaries, the councillors, the critics and the jesters.

Though these stories of kings may seem distant from our lived experience, for Weyni they are her family history. Her great-grandfather, Emperor Haile Selassie (of Ethiopia), died three years before she was born. Most of her family was executed, or imprisoned until she was thirteen. “My father came to Canada to study; then the revolution happened and he had to start a whole new life. I am the first of my family born abroad, the first born outside the palace walls. I grew up straddling the two worlds, trying to understand my family, who don’t always have all the words to express their complicated history. For me, these stories have been a gift, a window into the psychology of people in these positions of power.”

It is only appropriate that this cycle of plays, focused on what it means to be the one in charge, has been brought to life through a truly collaborative process. Together, we have directed this double-barrelled epic Breath of Kings – a relatively uncommon practice (co-directing in the theatre is only slightly less rare than co-monarch-ing was in medieval Europe). Alongside adaptor and associate director Graham Abbey, we have all worked to bring Rebellion and Redemption to life, in partnership with our inspired design team and this exceptional group of nineteen performers. We have spent many months excavating these four endlessly rich Shakespeare texts, and this revolutionary time in English history. The result is two interconnected theatrical experiences, self-contained but also cyclical. Among other things, these are tales of inheritance: as in our world, the decisions, aspirations, mistakes and crimes of one generation fertilize the ground for the world that is to come after.

We hope you see in these stories, as we have, something to inspire, something to incite, and something to question.