BWW Reviews: THE WARS OF THE ROSES, Rose Theatre Kingston, October 3 2015
In 1963 Peter Hall and John Barton took Henry VI Parts I, II and III and Richard III and sliced and diced them into three plays (Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III) and called the resultant trilogy The Wars of the Roses. Incredibly, it's taken all that time for a director to take a deep breath and stage their adaptation again (perhaps everyone was waiting for the memorable tagline, Shakespeare's Game Of Thrones), but Trevor Nunn has seized the day and delivers a thrilling theatrical experience well worth a trip from York or Lancaster.
The story begins with Henry V, vanquisher of the French at Agincourt, in his coffin and his baby son crowned King Henry VI, with England and its French territories ruled by the Protector, Henry's uncle, the Duke of Gloucester. Predictably, the French are revolting and, under a king who shows no sign of assuming royal responsibilities, preferring the company of The Bible to that of the bands of brothers who had served his father so well, things aren't good at home either. The Houses of Lancaster and York, both of whom have claims to the succession (family trees were seldom as straightforward as they are in an episode of "Who Do You Think You Are?" when the stakes are nations) have designs on the Throne and the firepower to do something about it. So just when England needed the smack of firm government, it got a king who was a gentle soul, happy to progress from nursery to library to church, staying out of the way of the rough boys. Henry may have locked himself away in his palaces, but the world outside the silent cloisters raged in a tumult of ambition and aggression.
Each play stands alone as a fully realised production, but it's the big picture makes this trilogy a unique, mesmerising experience. The concluding play, Richard III, is one of Shakespeare's most commonly staged histories, but there's always a bit of homework required, or some close reading of programme notes over a pre-show gin and tonic, in order to understand why we are pitched straight into the Winter Of Discontent. Not so here! Richard doesn't even hobble on stage until halfway through the action (long after we've witnessed the doomed, ruthless heroism of Joan of Arc and been inspired by her English queenly counterpart, Henry's French wife, the forceful fearless survivor, Margaret of Anjou) so we're ready for the broken body and sharp mind when he arrives at court. We see explicitly too Richard's charisma and wit, his bravery in battle - like so many who turn out utterly bad, he could have been utterly good - and, in an electrifying soliloquy, hear his thoughts as he calmly plans the psychotic murder spree that clears his path to the Throne and sows the seeds of the famous Discontent.
The acting is sensational. With so many in the company playing multiple roles, it's more trite than ever to single out individuals, but, well... I'm going to! Robert Sheehan (looking like a young Steve Coogan) has the enormous burden of the audience's twelve hours investment culminating in his interpretation of Richard. He rises to the challenge magnificently, boyish and sly at first, then charismatic and brave, souring into a vicious murderous tyrant, before weakening into a miserable, defeated foe. I don't care for awards for artistic endeavour, but this is award-worthy stuff from Sheehan. Joely Richardson is also superb as Margaret, the warrior queen, a huge presence on stage and an utterly convincing object of male desire and wonder as a political / military leader. That said, unlike Henry VI's court, this is a company with no weak links.
Finally a word for the venue. The Rose Theatre - named after Shakespeare's old stamping ground also on the banks of the Thames, ten miles or so downstream in Southwark - is perfect for this epic show. On the inside, the bleak set design with its simple table and just a handful of other props, allows the story the prominence in needs (for, though there's much to enjoy in the language of course, The Wars of the Roses is primarily about story) and the lighting design brilliantly suggests space and confinement, joy and pain, hopes and fears. For those who like them, the sword fights are pretty full-on too! Outside, the theatre has plenty of space to relax between shows within its own building and many more options within a five minutes walk in Kingston itself. You can get the fresh air Henry's court so desperately needed for yourself!
It took 52 years for this trilogy to be staged a second time. Don't miss it - because 2067 is a long way off!