The Death of Kings

“Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings….”

All three of The Death of Kings plays are currently available for production. Each of the two main plays, I Come But For Mine Own and The White Rose and the Red, are self-contained and can be performed individually or in repertory. Audiences can experience the plays in either order, and each can be played using a wide variety of directing and production styles. The third play, Seize the Crown, is an excellent introduction to Shakespeare’s history plays, and is perfect for workshop productions and school tours.

The Death of Kings can be performed by smaller or larger theater companies and educational institutions, and contain accessible material both for students and seasoned professionals. All three plays can be produced indoors or outdoors, in large proscenium theaters or in small black boxes, or even in non-traditional or site-specific spaces. The plays are designed to be easily portable, and each can be cast with as few as 10-12 actors or many more, depending on resources and the wishes of the producing company. Double, triple and multiple casting can be up to the discretion of the director, and the plays demand very external elements. Irwin Appel is also available to direct or consult.

“Irwin Appel has created something tremendous with Death of Kings. An adaptation of eight of Shakespeare’s history plays, Death of Kings condenses the bloody saga of civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York, both vying for power of the English crown, into five hours of pulsating, theatrical turmoil…. Appel’s work, clearly a labor of passion, is a brilliant version of Shakespeare’s history of England; one that reminds us why Shakespeare is, to this day, still lauded as one of the finest theatrical storytellers of the age.” – Maggie Yates, Broadway World

Part One: I Come But For Mine Own
Condensed from Richard II, Henry IV, 1 and 2, and Henry V, I Come But For Mine Own begins with the banishment of Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray by Richard II. John of Gaunt, Bolingbroke’s father, desperately chides Richard II for his waste greed and for seizing Bolingbroke’s wealth and lands: “Landlord of England art thou now, not king!” Richard leaves his kingdom to fight in the Irish wars, only to return to find Henry Bolingbroke and his army demanding what is rightfully his. “I come but for mine own,” Bolingbroke says to Richard, and Richard has no choice but to acquiesce to Bolingbroke’s demands. Bolingbroke is popular with the people, and he becomes King Henry IV, sending Richard to be murdered in prison. Richard’s final revelation before he dies is one of the major themes in both parts of The Death of Kings:

“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.
Nor I nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleased, till he be eased
With being nothing.”

But this is only the beginning of the story. Henry Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, laments that his son, Prince Henry, or “Hal,” is not like the son of Northumberland, Henry Percy, also known as “Hotspur.” Hal prefers life in the taverns and brothels to the court of England, and he is especially at home at the Boar’s Head Tavern in Eastcheap with his partner-in-crime, Sir John Falstaff. I Come But For Mine Own tells the full story of the friendship between Hal and Falstaff, along with Hal’s recognition of the great responsibility and burden he bears as he becomes king along with his eventual renunciation of his friend Sir John. Hotspur turns against King Henry IV and leads an ill-fated rebellion against him. Hal defeats Hotspur in a climactic battle and is redeemed in his father’s eyes. As he is dying, King Henry IV counsels his son that in order to truly unite the kingdom, “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels.” With his father’s death, Hal becomes King Henry V, conquering the French by first spurring on his soldiers at Harfleur, and finally winning a great victory with his heavily outnumbered “band of brothers” at the battle of Agincourt on St. Crispian’s Day. After the battle, King Henry woos the French king’s daughter Katherine to be his wife and unites England and France after years of war. I Come But For Mine Own ends with the birth of a son to Henry and Katherine, soon to become the lonely and reclusive King Henry VI, setting the stage for war again with the French and the bloody civil wars that follow.

“A balanced and exciting evening of theater… beautifully organized, highly cohesive effort. I look forward to seeing what comes next.” – Charles Donelan, Santa Barbara Independent

Part Two: The White Rose and the Red
The kingdom is in chaos after the death of Henry V. John of Lancaster, Henry’s brother, and Lord Protector of the realm, desperately tries to hold the kingdom together, but cannot contend with the growing factions of the houses of York and Lancaster, along with war once again with France. The young King Henry VI is overwhelmed, ineffectual and unable to unite the kingdom. Richard, Duke of York, lays claim to the throne, and the Wars of the Roses begin:

“Let him that is a true-born gentleman
From off this brier pluck a white rose with me.”

Meanwhile, France is emboldened by the appearance of Joan La Pucelle, also known as Joan of Arc, who claims:

“God’s mother deigned to appear to me
And in a vision full of majesty
Will’d me to free my country from calamity…”

Joan is eventually defeated, but out of the ashes of her burning at the stake comes Margaret of Anjou, wooed by the Duke of Suffolk to be Henry’s queen. The nobles in the kingdom are outraged by this match, and Richard of York, aided by Jack Cade and his rebels, sweeps in with his sons, Edward, Richard and George to claim the crown. The White Rose and the Red continues the story of the power struggle between Margaret, Henry and the house of Lancaster, versus Richard, his sons, and the Earl of Warwick, representing the house of York. Richard’s son Edward becomes king, but his younger brother, Richard of Gloucester, plots his own calculating ascent to the throne, becoming the infamous and bloody Richard III. Eventually, Richard III is challenged by Henry, Earl of Richmond, who triumphs and becomes King Henry VII, the first king from the house of Tudor, vowing to unite “the white rose and the red.”

“A mighty triumph… rich and artfully made.” – Alex Hentelhoff, Casa Magazine

The Death of Kings: Seize the Crown
Seize the Crown is a ninety-minute version of The Death of Kings that contains excerpts from the two main plays, along with some alternative material. Through narration, it weaves together the basic plot of all eight history plays and serves not only as an “appetizer” or “trailer” for the two major plays, but stands on its own as a concise encapsulation of the entire history contained in this story. It is an especially good piece for acting students as it contains some of the great soliloquys and two-person scenes in The Death of Kings. Seize the Crown received its European premiere at the Prague Shakespeare Company’s Summer Shakespeare Intensive in 2017.

“Irwin Appel’s Death of Kings is excellent theatre by a world class Shakespearean. The production is a gripping and wondrously inventive distillation of Shakespeare’s history plays compacted into a stunning and user-friendly evening for the audience. The world needs more Shakespeare like this!”
– Guy Roberts, Artistic Director, Prague Shakespeare Company

The “Birth” of The Death of Kings
On October 25, 2015, I stood on a field in Azincourt, France, 600 years to the day that Henry V and his undermanned English defeated the French at the battle of Agincourt. The sun was unrelenting, and it struck me that that very same sun had also blinded the French as the English unleashed a storm of arrows from their longbows, winning one of the most improbable victories in history. Earlier, I went to the Vieux-Marché in Rouen and sat at the spot where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake. I traveled to England to Bosworth battlefield where Richard III was killed, and also to Leicester where Richard’s bones were found under a parking lot in 2013 and then reinterred at Leicester Cathedral in 2015. I also visited the Temple Garden in London, where the rose-plucking scene from Henry VI, Part 1 takes place that is Shakespeare’s catalyst for the Wars of the Roses. I stood at Towton, the location of the bloodiest battle in English history where 28,000 were killed in one snowy day as the soon-to-be King Edward IV took revenge on the Lancasters for his father York’s death. I went to the ruins of Pontefract Castle, or “Pomfret,” where Richard II was killed in prison. I found a small monument, almost hidden next to a school district building, marking the spot of Shakespeare’s “paper crown” scene in Henry VI, Part 3, where Margaret executed Richard, Duke of York during the battle of Wakefield. I then stood on the city walls of York where Margaret placed York’s head for all to see. My purpose going to all these places was not to try to reproduce historical accuracy necessarily, but to experience how light and sound filled the area. As hokey as it sounds, I just wanted to feel the earth below my feet. I was on a quest for something abstract and tangible at the same time.

In creating The Death of Kings, I am not interested in creating museum piece Shakespeare, or even paying homage to English history. I am trying to produce an allegory for our time and make raw, energetic, vibrant Shakespeare using the power of the actor and word. I also have fallen in love with these history plays and see them as very underrated, particularly the Henry VI plays. My hope is that theaters who would like to do more of the histories, but are unable to devote a season slot to a play such as Henry VI Part 2, might be interested in this epic event of two plays designed to both stand alone, and work together. Most people are unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s history plays, and that they contain some of the greatest and most profound material he ever wrote. We also live in a golden age of episodic entertainment, and I am influenced as much by Breaking Bad and The Sopranos as I am by Shakespearean history. Obviously, in trying to condense twelve hours of material down to under three for each play, there are many characters and nuances that are lost. However, what The Death of Kings hopes to reveal are complete story and character arcs in one sitting: we not only see Prince Hal introduced, but then watch him with Falstaff and his mates, then renounce Falstaff, and then become not only the great Henry V, but also the Henry V struggling with his past and sense of burden. We see Richard III from his first entrance as York’s son all the way through his demise. In a normal production of Richard III, we have very little context for the character of Margaret; in The Death of Kings, we meet her for the first time as she is wooed by Suffolk, then witness her triumph and ultimate capture, and then finally her return from exile for revenge.

The Death of Kings often combines multiple characters into one. For example, all of Henry V’s brothers have been merged into one character called John of Lancaster. I have done this to both try to distill the relationships down to a more singular focus, as well as hopefully aid the audience in understanding who’s who. No one is more aware than I am that it seems as though every character in these plays is named either Richard, Edward or Henry! I’ve also added the devices of a storytelling chorus and of ghosts, building on Shakespeare’s use of ghosts in Richard III and chorus in Henry V.

It is no accident that The Death of Kings was first produced in 2016, a pivotal election year. We actually had a performance on Super Tuesday. As I watched the early Republican debates, I saw the same vying for the crown on those stages as are in these plays. Some things never change….

The Death of Kings is a milestone in the twelve years of Naked Shakes productions at the University of California Santa Barbara, and is only possible because of the contributions of the artists and students who were part of the original productions. The faculty and guest artists include:
Jeff Mills – Associate Director, Fight Director, Actor (King Henry IV)
Christina McCarthy – Movement Director, Choreographer
Jim Connolly – Composer, Musician
Ann Bruice – Costume Design
Vickie Scott – Lighting Design
Greg Mitchell – Scenic Design
Simon Williams – Dramaturg, Actor (John of Gaunt)
Michael Morgan – Voice and Speech Coach, Actor (Edmund, Duke of York)
Anne Torsiglieri – Actor (Sir John Falstaff)
Brian Harwell – Actor (Richard, Duke of York)
Jenny Mercein – Assistant Director
Julie Fishell – Consultant, Actor (Richard II for Prague Shakespeare)
Tristan Newcomb – Videography, Archive, Website Creator
Risa Brainin – Chair, Department of Theater and Dance…
… and the brilliant work of the Department of Theater and Dance production staff, student actors, stage managers, assistant directors and crew members.
          – Irwin Appel, Director and Adaptor, The Death of Kings

Press and Reviews of The Death of Kings
Preview, The Death of Kings:
Preview 2, The Death of Kings:
Review, The Death of Kings:
Review, Part One: I Come But For Mine Own:
Review, Part Two: The White Rose and the Red:
Santa Barbara Independent Awards, 2016:

(Production Photos by David Bazemore)