Wars of The Roses
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by John Barton with Peter Hall (1963) from Henry VI Part 1, Part II and Part III and Richard III.
Directed by Trevor Nunn (2015)
The Rose Theatre, Kingston-on-Thames
Thursday 15th October 2015
SEE LINKS BELOW FOR EACH PLAY
Henry VI … 11 am (REVIEW LINK)
Edward IV … 3 pm (REVIEW LINK)
Richard III … 7.30 pm (REVIEW LINK)
The three plays were mixed and matched from Henry VI Parts 1 to III and Richard III by John Barton and Peter Hall in 1963 for the RSC. They retitled them Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III which was not far wrong … Henry VI Part III was originally titled The True Tragedy of The Duke of York, i.e. Edward IV. David Warner made his name at 22 playing Henry VI, and Ian Holm played Richard III. Controversially, Barton deleted much and added 1450 lines of his own to propel the story.
In 1965 it was broken into an eleven part TV series. The series set the RSC style for the next 30 years. I rather liked Theatre 1’s description of the day at the Rose Theatre Kingston as “the box set.” I guess three in a day is the equivalent of sitting down with the DVD’s of the latest Game of Thrones and watching the lot in one sitting And yes, The Game of Thrones is used in publicity. Just as it was by The Globe two years ago for Henry VI Parts 1-3.
Three plays in a day is a marathon for the cast (let alone the audience) and they’re doing it on Thursdays AND Saturdays. John Barton went on to write Tantalus which we saw at Milton Keynes in 2001 … one of the few theatres equipped to deal with the necessary staging then. That was ten Greek plays in a day, though they were just an hour each. It vies with Peter Brooks A Midsummer Night’s Dream as the best thing I’ve seen in a theatre.
I chuckled to see that “Press Day” had involved seeing all three plays in a day. The reviews all exaggerate the timing of the marathon saying “nine hours long.” It’s not. It’s nine hours including intervals. Each play is a “normal” Shakespeare production length and split … 90 minute first half, 20 minute interval, 70 minute second half. So watching time is 8 hours, not 9.
Non-PC on colour blindness
This 2015 production of Wars of The Roses got four stars from most papers, five from Domenic Cavendish in the Telegraph, but then The Sunday Times review actually made me angry. The Sunday Times film and theatre reviewers make their mark by sailing against the tide. Maxie Szalwinska gives it two stars and continues the bleat about the all-white casting:
Controversy surrounds the all-white casting of his 23 strong ensemble, a decision (Trevor Nunn) defended on the grounds of ‘historical verisimilitude. This decision – already daft – is made dafter by a fogeyish production that feels like a tourist in Tudor times.
OK, the fashion is for colour-blind productions, but it can look stupid. This is English & Welsh history … it predates British history. The Plantagenets were closely related and through maternal and paternal lines. Everyone was a cousin, usually first cousins too. That’s the lot of them except Joan of Arc and Jack Cade (and even deluded Jack thinks he is). The whole argument is on blood lines and succession. So would it make sense to (say) add a black Richard III however stellar the actor? Colour blindness often goes too far. It’s intrinsic, basic … ‘She’s got her grandma’s eyes,’ ‘He’s got his grandad’s chin.’ We all do it. OK, I’m not suggesting casting close relatives, but a black kid to two white parents automatically makes us question legitimacy, a major theme of the plays anyway, especially the princes in Richard III. There is a difference between ethnically-diverse casting and colour blindness. For example the RSC Macbeth in 2011 cast Banquo as black, and his son Fleance was black too. That’s ethnic-diversity, but it is logical. It is not “colour-blind.” Also, given the current wealth of British acting talent, no one would have had to stress themselves finding either an all-white, or an all non-white cast. To have been colour blind, given the plot, would be “positive discrimination” and no actor wants to be cast “because they’re black.” They could have (say) veered towards olive-skinned for the French, but everyone in this play has to double up. That includes the four with billing on the posters, so Alex Waldman, the “star” as Henry VI, has to play a humble 3rd citizen in Richard III as well as a cameo as Tyrell. The casting director has pointed out that because of the multiple roles, everyone has to play a York or Lancaster at some point. So that is a constraint, and it wouldn’t fit the historical verisimilitude. A white actor would not audition for a role as Nelson Mandela. You can’t change history, Ms Szalwinska.
What the critics missed is that it’s NOT accent-blind either. They note the RP of the nobles, and get sniffy about Robert Sheehan’s RP accent as Richard III instead of his natural Irish. But this bucks the trend. No, you don’t do it in your natural accent. Every accent is planned and considered. The result is blazing clarity of pronunciation, intonation and every actor has first-rate projection. That’s as against the fashion as avoiding colour-blindness.
Every accent in this production has purpose. When the Northern lords, the Cliffords turn up in Edward IV they have Northern accents. When Edward is captured (and coitus interuptus) in his tent, the three guards who flee this Midland battlefield are all three light Midlands in accent. All Jack Cade’s men are estuary / Kent. I know we could go into possible 15th century regional accents, and no one would actually “know” the right answers, but the accents all make sense in our perceptions of the regions and classes. The French nobility speak RP English, the outsider, Joan of Arc has a light tinge of (I think) Irish which the actress does not have in her other roles.
Joely Richardson’s Queen Margaret … I think she and the old Duchess of York are the only characters to survive through all three plays … has a “foreign accent.” It’s impossible to place, but she was Margret of Anjou, daughter of the King of “Naples, Sicily and Jerusalem” (a major laugh is when his titles are read out with a quizzical stress on the last). The French court speak RP English. Margaret needs to sound “outsider” in the English court, but we know that a French accent inevitably has either comic or romantic overtones in English. A French accent, given that the French don’t have one, would be illogical. She chooses an unplaceable very slightly Central European … I thought it closer to Czech than Polish or Hungarian, but it doesn’t matter. it’s slight, and it adds a hard edge to her character. She sounds like a Central European who’s lived in England 30 year, speaks perfect English, but retains a slight foreign accent. It works.
When I think back over the last few years, many Shakespeare plays have had an actor with a very strong natural regional accent … we couldn’t understand a word of the Scottish nurse in the Globe’s recent Romeo and Juliet. Sometimes it aids character, it’s supposed to be irrelevant, but also sometimes it really hinders comprehension. A classic, 1960s RP Shakespeare was a model of clarity. Full marks to Mr Nunn for using it against all trends.
A couple of the negative reviews described set and props as “a throne being wheeled on” which is what you say if you’re determined to be negative. There was a magnificent three storey steel set with balconies at both upper levels and steps. As well as a “throne” there were chairs, tables, a long council table (vital to the plot) which rose from below and also formed the base for coffins. Tents descended very cleverly from the balconies in Richard III. There were convenient slots at the edge where swords were stored. I never felt the set lacking, it was standard very good RSC minimal as far as I was concerned. A whirling light made it look as if the whole stage was revolving during time breaks, accentuated by the semi-circular edge.
THE ROSE THEATRE
Set for The Wars of The Roses
View of auditorium from stage
We had never been there, nor even heard of it though it’s been going since 2008. The theatre is a roofed replica in shape of the Rose Theatre in Southwark, and the outlines can be seen in the Rose Theatre museum in the basement of an office block, a few hundred yards from Shakespeare’s Globe. Henry VI was first performed at The Rose, which predates The Globe. The Rose at Kingston cheerfully goes for normal seats, modern stairs and so on. Historical reproduction is shape and seating angles. It does not require splinters in the bottom from rough-hewn wood.
It’s a theatre on our “to watch” list now, excellent public areas, surrounded by restaurants too. Discounting Christmas though, there only seems to be one home-grown production in the next half year … the rest is touring stuff which is also coming closer to home. It made me think about those critics moaning about the RSC needing to bring productions to London more. I loathe the Barbican. This is an ideal stage, albeit western suburbs rather than central … it’s still on a train link.
Sorry, very similar to Bath and Salisbury at matinees, though for all three. Elderly dominate. Quite a bit of testy Advanced RP elderly too, “Are you queuing for the ladies?’ “Um, no, obviously not, waiting for my wife.” “Then please stand aside.” … just one example of several. The theatre had a lively bar area with a great children’s play area, so Wars of the Roses may have attracted an atypical crowd.
The three plays were definitely “standing ovation” level but didn’t get it, another sign of an ageing audience. Partly it’s the double seats … the same is true at the Almeida or Young Vic … you can’t stand up unless the person sharing your seat agrees to do so at exactly the same time which is very hard as you get older. We wanted to stand and whoop with abandon but would have felt isolated. The greatest applause was for Robert Sheehan in Richard III though possibly it being evening helped. My “performance of the day” was Alex Waldmann by a mile.
I’d guess the cast yearn for the spontaneous flat-out (young) applause at The Globe. I would.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAY
Interestingly, the Rose’s website quotes positive reviews but does not cite the Mail or the Express’s 4 star ratings. Perhaps they don’t wish to admit they read them, though both sets of reviewers are consistently insightful.
All three negative two star reviews are from female reviewers. Subject matter?
Daily Telegraph (Domenic Cavendish) – 5 star
The Guardian (Michael Billington) – 4 star
The Independent (Paul Taylor) – 4 star
The Daily Mail (Patrick Marnham) – 4 star
The Daily Express (Michael Arditti) – 4 star
Financial Times (read it, they want money to read it twice!)– 4 star
London Theatre – 5 stars
The Sunday Times (Maxie Szalwinska) – 2 stars
The Observer (Susannah Clap) – 2 stars
The Stage (Natasha Tripney) – 2 stars
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