November 01, 1988

Crowning Achievement

The Wars of The Roses
History Plays by William Shakespeare
English Shakespeare Company
Directed by Michael Bogdanov
Festival Theatre

“And if you crown him, let me prophesy/ The blood of English shall manure the ground/ And future ages groan for this foul act.” The words of the Bishop of Carlisle went unheeded and the rest is history – Shakespeare’s history of a decimating brawl which began in 1398, when the hollow crown of the last Plantagenet Richard II was snatched by Henry Bolinbroke, and ended in 1485 when Henry, Earl of Richmond defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field.

These are the Wars of the Roses chronicled by Holinshed and Hall and dramatised by William Shakespeare in a mini-series of eight plays written in the 1590s. He wrote the last half first – the so-called First Tetralogy – three parts Henry VI to one part Richard III, and the Second Tetralogy- Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II and (in among Much Ado, As You Like It and Julius Caesar) the ripping yarn of Henry V.

Clusters of these plays have been performed over the past 25 years or so – most significantly John Barton and Peter Hall’s Wars of the Roses which was staged by the RSC in 1964 and adapted for television in the following year. This covered the First Tetralogy with David Warner as Henry VI, Peggy Ashcroft as Queen Margaret and Ian Holm’s peerless Richard III.

But it was not until 1986 when the purpose-built English Shakespeare Company began operation that all eight of the histories have been presented as a cycle. Under the direction of Michael Bogdanov and starring Michael Pennington, the ESC began a world tour with their 22 hour Wars of the Roses – Richard to Richard, with Henry IV compacted to two parts – a four night fixture with one matinee and a real day of it on the Saturday.

Shakespeare’s plays chart the profound upheaval which occurred when the rightful Richard II lost his job and show how the political and moral order of the realm is sundered. Usurpers like mafia dons desperately slug it out for supremacy and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. It is only when Henry VII puts a sword in Richard’s hump that stability is restored. Or at least that is what the general public at the time of Elizabeth I liked to think. After all, Henry VII was her grandfather and the Tudor propaganda machine was being well-oiled by Holinshed and Hall, not to mention Shakespeare with his eye on a grant application.

The ESC production recognises that the histories serve the need and beliefs of an Elizabethan audience as well as providing a timeless narrative of honour, loyalty and courage, treason, intrigue and carnage. So in setting the plays in roughly the hundred years from late Victorian England to the present day it has allowed the political and moral conundra to resonate also in our own time.

Michael Bogdanov has not achieved this with superficial anachronism – staging Shakespeare in battle fatigues is in itself a somewhat tired convention – but by exposing and connecting recurrent themes which run like arteries through the plays.

Richard II is a strangely static play. It is a play of set speeches, ceremonial, ritualistic and poetic. Richard is an aesthete. Michael Pennington plays him in a Wildean velvet frockcoat surrounded by those favourites who sound like a firm of accountants – Bushy, Bagot and Green. Richard hovers at the death bed of John of Gaunt, played tellingly by Hugh Sullivan whose sceptred isle speech has bitter implications for Maggie’s Farm and an England that ‘hath made a shameful conquest of itself’.

When Michael Cronin’s Bolingbroke, dour, bourgeois and bureaucratic takes control the settings become those of the Victorian boardroom. Richard’s number is up but we have no confidence in the drab self-justifications of his successor. The abdication scene, a frozen tableau of a business takeover has Pennington riddling and prevaricating against the implacable Bolinbroke as each physically grasps the crown which cannot rest easily on either.

While each play is discrete it is rare to experience the exponential effect of them in series. It is only then that the sense of retribution and prophesy fully emerges as the boundaries between plays blur and the production becomes truly epic, that is to say, episodic. Bodganov, with set designer Chris Dyer and costume designer Stephanie Howard, has achieved a narrative fluidity with a profusion of motifs, emblems, signs – effortless meanings arising inescapably from the text itself. Individual performances, exceptional though so many are, are subsumed in this stream of race memory which touches on both the political and the personal.

The series is a pageant – vertical banners and sparse settings establish and re-establish the mechanics of power, the grim etiquette of revenge and the proud display of (always temporary) victory. The acting formations, disciplined and thoughtful are reminiscent of the Rustaveli Company whose Richard III was complete and accessible even in Georgian dialect.

This production offers a diorama of events and acting moments which gain complexity with the skilful doubling of the actors. As Michael Pennington moves through a succession of roles, his acting style – idiosyncrasies, gestures, tricks and quirks is revealed. It is an extraordinary disclosure for any actor and for that reason it is a remarkable gift to an audience. As Richard, as the calculating young Hal, Henry V the Biggles king, Suffolk the fixer, Jack Cade the leveler and Buckingham the Watergate plumber, he brings both variation and a profound familiarity. It is like watching a batsman on different days of a Test.

Others are equally accomplished. Barry Stanton’s Falstaff, the lord of misrule and satirist of honour in gargantuan busby and grenadier guard’s outfit is colossal in spirit, range and stature. His muse of fire speech soars in Henry V and his York on the molehill in Henry VI is compelling when Queen Margaret (Jean Watson) pitilessly mocks him with news of young Rutland, his son’s death – it is one of the great moments of the series, a reminder of the quality of much of the neglected Henry VI’s and it also goes some way to explaining why Richard Gloucester turned court into a St Valentine’s Day massacre.

Andrew Jarvis, striking looking with his head shaven, shows Harry Hotspur to be more than a Yorkshire pud playing soldiers, does Gadshill with a rainbow mohawk and is smoothly satiric as the Dauphin, the perfect foil to Francesca Ryan’s empowered Joan of Arc. His Gloucester is at its best in Henry VI Pt. II when he saunters away from the cocktail party in his tux and lifts his champagne glass to the audience with ‘Now is the winter of our discontent/ made glorious summer by this son of York’. It is a breathtaking portent for Richard III. Regretably Richard III opened with jazzy syncopations from the band which seemed to prevent Jarvis getting into his hunch-backed stride until Act Ill. We do not believe Lady Anne was wooed or won but by Act IV Lady Gray is certainly in the web.

Other performances insist in the memory – Hugh Sullivan as John of Gaunt, Charles Dale as Poins and Richmond, June Watson as Mistress Quickly, Clyde Pollit as Shallow, Colin Farrell as Bardolph and Humphry of Gloucester, Paul Brennan’s worldly Henry VI and Jack Carr as Tyrell.

For four days we watched the transcience of power, the inconstancy of fealty and the inconsolable finality of death- of kings, princes, mothers, wives, thieves, saints, fathers, sons, honest men and scoundrels – it is an existential charnel house. The 600 costumes, gorgeous, wittily current, brutishly military, are a triumph – in underscoring the discrepancy between codes and reality and as an aide-memoire. The Temple garden scene at the opening of Henry VI has the Yorks and Lanes in dinner dress pluck the red and white roses of allegiance so that our combatants are always indentifiably buttonholed and colour-coded. It is the kind of stunningly simple device which makes this production unique in its intelligence and clarity.

Tony Mortimer’s music – eclectically selected from classical works and traditional ballad – uses ironic renditions of Jerusalem and You’re in the Army Now, shattering anthems from Status Quo, drum and synthesiser fanfares, selections from Schubert and Samuel Barber, even a satiric use of God Save the Queen, to mesmerising effect.

By the end of Richard III when Richmond claims victory in the kind of TV studio which this week has been forbidden to report the news from Ireland, The Wars of the Roses had bloomed and waned in a production of exceptional richness and integrity. It cost a fortune and lost a bundle but theatrically it is an achievement which overwhelms even The Mahabharata. The 25 actors of the ESC have privileged us with the work of the greatest writer in the history of our language.

Murray Bramwell

“Crowning Achievement” The Adelaide Review, No.57, November, 1988, pp.24-5.

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