The Wars Of The Roses : Trevor Nunn does the second tetralogy
THE WARS OF THE ROSES
- Venue: Rose Theatre Kingston
- Director: Sir Trevor Nunn
- Company: Rose Theatre Kingston
As a recent graduate in 1963, Sir Trevor Nunn travelled to Stratford to see The Wars of the Roses at the fledgling RSC.
It’s an adaptation by John Barton of the three parts of Henry VI together with Richard III. The sprawling treatment of the Lancaster vs York conflicts is made manageable as a single project with judicious editing.
If you have the stamina it’s possible to watch all three plays in a day. Sir Trevor recently kept a promise he had made to himself as an undergraduate and directed the cycle at The Rose, Kingston.
It’s a difficult phase of history and the plot turns are dizzying, with monarchs on the throne for non-consecutive phases and two characters changing political allegiance three times. Sir Trevor could not have made this version more accessible without dumbing it down though we were helped for much of the action with the colour coding of the roses. The approach was lucid, unmannered and the very opposite of a ‘concept’ production: in short, exactly what you would expect from a consummately successful Shakespearian director who has nothing to prove.
This is not to say that the treatment of the plays ignored their enormous topical relevance for today. They can be seen as an extended essay on regime change and the creative team were alive to this. Back in 1963, John Barton and Sir Peter Hall were keen that the piece should be politicised and encouraged audiences to draw parallels with contemporary unrest in the breakaway African state of Katanga (now a part of DR Congo). As Henry VI reflected on the factionalism engulfing both England and France, it was clear that even his limited political acumen recognised that there might be worse to come. Few theatre-goers in Kingston could have failed to think of Syria.
I calculated that I took in more than ten hours of Shakespeare during a 13-hour day at the theatre. Never one for unwarranted goriness, Sir Trevor maintained the broad narrative and pace by avoiding predictable set pieces. As Joan of Arc, Imogen Daines must have won over the whole audience with her first nuanced soliloquy and she should surely play this role in the next revival of the Shaw play. I had dreaded the burning scene and was relieved when it amounted to no more than a little screaming at the end of an act. Malcolm Ranson’s fight direction was always imaginative and Joan’s duel with the future Charles VII set an immediate benchmark of athleticism. Daines consistently spoke to the audience directly with great subtlety and resourcefulness.
Generally the lack of violence was a relief but much later, being a fan of a good drowning in a butt of Malmsey wine, I felt cheated when Michael Xavier as an underpowered Clarence (who had just proved disappointing with his dream speech) was murdered off-stage in a tame manner. He had failed to convey the hellish night just passed and the desperate nature of his imprisonment. The length of the day may have been taking its toll here; earlier Xavier had been outstanding as Suffolk, the adulterous lover of Margaret who may well have fathered Henry’s heir, Edward of Westminster.
The first part of the sequence will always be anchored on Henry even though he is rarely king in anything but name. Alex Waldmann gave a closely observed performance that abounded with inventive gestures suggesting that this timorous, pious boy-man sitting in the lotus position on the throne and forever mislaying his sceptre may well believe he is still a child who is playing at kings and queens. Waldmann acquired detail subtly and invested his soliloquies with unusual, unexpected inflections while staying true to the meter.
As Margaret his queen, Joely Richardson negotiated an Everest of a role that spans 35 years and is the longest part Shakespeare ever wrote for a woman. Makeup and costume departments served Richardson well as she aged convincingly. She skilfully retained a hint of a French accent throughout, exuded a heady sexual aura in early adulthood and was fearsome in chainmail when leading the Lancastrian forces on the battlefield. Above all, she appeared truly psychotic when inviting York to daub his tears on a handkerchief soaked in his own son’s blood.
Elsewhere there were a few weaknesses and comedian-turned-classical-actor Rufus Hound made little impression as Jack Cade, taking what seems a lazy interpretation in assuming that Shakespeare’s working classes spoke in present-day Estuary English punctuated by glottal stops. There’s no evidence that this is how they sounded and it’s a wonder that Sir Trevor didn’t dissuade him from such an approach.
I also had reservations about the multi-tiered staging with the ‘conceptual design’ being by John Napier and execution by Mark Friend. It should be stressed that this production originated at The Rose Theatre, Kingston, who were most certainly not a receiving house for the project. It was therefore incredible that from different seats during the day (all of them premium), I frequently was unable to see actors delivering crucial lines of exposition on account of the circle overhang. This aside, the tiers proved exceptionally effective as the walls of Orleans and the exterior of London landmarks. With messengers appearing in the circle and much use being made of the voms, the action inhabited the whole space.
As the audience settled for Richard III there was speculation that with the whole project being so novel, Robert Sheehan might not begin with “Now is the winter of our discontent.” He did, and lived up to his character’s boast that he could be as changeable as Proteus or the chameleon. Even the best-known soliloquies appeared to be occurring to Sheehan spontaneously and I would wager that they varied slightly every night. Non-verbal communication also proved crucial in the anguish with which Richard excused himself from the opening dance and immediately established himself as somebody profoundly uncomfortable in his own skin. A natural comedian, Sheehan mined text and stage directions for the considerable number of gags that Shakespeare intended, doing this as effectively as anybody I can remember in the role since Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic.
At the afternoon curtain call, Alex Waldmann had made a graceful spontaneous speech telling us that a frail 86-year-old John Barton was in the stalls. We had listened to at least 1,400 lines of Barton’s own blank verse since the condensing process required composition of new material to keep the narrative coherent. The reception for Barton proved overwhelming. The RSC is of course currently doing the second tetralogy though several of the plays in this are revived productions. At the Barbican that very evening a certain person would be doing his Hamlet but the verdict in Kingston seemed unanimous. We were seeing the Shakespeare event of the year.