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A CurtainUp London Review
The Histories Cycle from the RSC at The Roundhouse
Tom Piper’s design sets Richard in a post industrial landscape of rusted iron work, copper tarnished think disused a Battersea Power Station. The industrial steel ladders, the circular staircase and the traverse walkways allow for a variety of simultaneous entrances and exits. My problem with the Roundhouse is the lighting spill into the first few rows which spoils our enjoyment, distracts and causes eye strain as the spots fall on us.
The lists are dramatised as I have never seen them before in a stamping dance with swords raised and the joust is recreated with saddles lowered on to the stage on hoists. Richard visibly shrinks from this violence, as do we, we are so close to the action. This Richard is brittle, unstable, ill equipped for diplomatic decisions and rule. His hollow crown speech is said as if for the first time, not as if it is a speech but just his ideas flowing.
There are comic and lighter moments in the play. The gardeners threaten to prune the audience and spray some of them with water but the Aumerle (James Tucker) scene takes on a most Pythonesque moment when the stock of a small glove shop is thrown down by numerous individuals in challenging one another.
This is Jonathan Slinger’s play – his abdication speech when he is forced to hand over his crown and sceptre is very moving. He starts to speak eloquently in his own defence and as he says "to undeck the pompous body of a king" and "I have no name, no title" off comes his wig, his makeup. All this frippery turns to dust, literally, when he stands for several minutes under a shower of sand. It is this image which is the abiding memory of Boyd’s production, as the once regal man, bald and bareheaded, stands stock still with great majesty of presence as he is rained on by dust. This is a visual illusion to the Duke of York’s (Richard Corderey) description of Richard, "
Even so, or with much more contempt, men's eyes
Did scowl on gentle Richard; no man cried ‘God save him!’
No joyful tongue gave him his welcome home:
But dust was thrown upon his sacred head:
Which with such gentle sorrow he shook off,
His face still combating with tears and smiles,
The badges of his grief and patience,
That had not God, for some strong purpose, steel'd
The hearts of men, they must perforce have melted
And barbarism itself have pitied him."
It is a powerful introduction to the cycle of plays which will end with Jonathan Slinger as Richard III.
Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 contribute nearly seven hours worth of the Histories and face the problem of countering flagging spirits and energies. Fortunately, Michael Boyd’s fluid and vitalistic direction manages to retain the audience’s attention in the midst of this Shakespearean marathon. With an earthy brightness, this classic production has all the sumptuous wealth of former RSC productions but is more restrained and relevant. Portraying an illuminated reality with gore dripping weapons, peasants with a series of dermatological disorders and verse-spouting politicians, there is vivid but naturalistic stylization to support the rich weight of the text. The contrasting spheres and diverse cliques of men are all done justice to, including the ambitious machinations of the rebels, the heavy, fatal politics of the government’s council and the bawdy fun of East Cheap’s whorehouse.
Moreover, the continuity of these plays performed by the same cast and in chronological order really starts to take effect. When Rumour (Forbes Masson) drags Henry IV’s coffin onstage, it is the same actor who was the former king’s assassin, while the corpse itself is now suitably decayed. The ghost of Richard lurks and stalks the stage, while dust pours from the ceiling on Henry IV’s head as it did on the deposed king one play earlier. As the action is framed with multiple reflections, there is a clear sense of the cyclical nature of the shifting politics and the sense that the past is inescapably part of the present.
As well as the parallels and origins suggested by the undead past, there are varying paradigms and equivalences between the characters. After over two years of intense rehearsal and performance schedules, the RSC’s well-bonded ensemble certainly know how to portray these connections. The most notable of these is that of the father-son relationship and the central figure of Falstaff, surrogate father to Hal. David Warner, now returning to the RSC after 40 years’ absence, plays an affectionate, unforgettable Falstaff. Less of the cynical, mercenary buffoon, his Falstaff is an endearing epicurean, a genial object of banter in spite of his lies and outrageous hyperbole.
Also excellently engaging is Geoffrey Streatfeild’s charismatic Hal. Sheltered by his dissipation, he is blissfully preserved from the angry conspiracies and dangers of the political world by associating exclusively with low-tavern-life. His conversion into rightful sovereign is convincingly handled as, in grief for his father, he assumes the grave and severe responsibility of his inheritance. With precise direction, this is starkly contrasted to Falstaff’s reaction who sees only bright expectations and is greedy at this opportunity for great fortune and influence. This emphasised difference makes Hal’s poignant rejection of Falstaff more understandable and necessary. With harsh words spoken softly and with dignity, the young king turns to the new, more appropriate yet far less amusing father figure, the Lord Chief Justice (Richard Cordery).
Michael Boyd’s direction achieves persuasive transparency and clarity, which alleviates the daunting spectre of the nexuses of historical politics. He gives the plays space to breathe in their own right and the characters to find their own depths. With no attempt to be innovative or gimmicky for its own sake, this production is conventional in a sleek, stylised way.
Henry V is probably the best known of the history cycle and the one most likely to be played as a single play. However putting it in its historical context, as the fourth of eight plays, it becomes less a celebration of English nationalism and more a single king’s growing into his royal role and not having to contend with his father’s guilt at deposing a divinely appointed monarch. The sheer good luck of Henry V in his defeat of the French is impressive.
The beautiful "Oh for a muse of fire" opening is delivered very low key with the diminutive Forbes Masson (yes he that murdered Richard II, see above) in a didactic introduction which alludes to the roundhouse. Of course Shakespeare was referring to his circular playhouse but it raises a laugh in the old engine turntable housing that is now London’s Roundhouse. The clergy define for us the meaning of the Sallic law and the justification for Henry’s claim on French land and even the king stifles a yawn and shows his impatience. King Henry (Geoffrey Streatfeild), like his court, dressed in black, in mourning for his father but in contrast to the gilded court of Richard II, lets the mocking Dauphinois tennis balls tumble out of an overhead crate. And despite rounding up work with giant brooms we are diverted for several minutes by the prospect of someone slipping on a stray ball.
Switching to the underclass, the residents of Eastcheap, these "gentlewomen who live by the prick . . . of their needles" we meet some of the men who made up the English army. We never see anyone other than the French aristocracy and royalty but in England and Wales there are plenty of underlings for the Pit to identify with. I rather liked the style conscious French, indolent posing, fashion conscious, they descend on trapezes with blue silks flowing. The modish French are good for some light relief as they pun "my horse is my mistress" and congratulate each other on their "whoresmanship". Of them, Mountjoy (Chuk Iwuji) alone watches concerned at the overconfidence of the "overlusty" French.
We see Henry unafraid to dole out punishment. With his sleeves rolled up, he personally despatches the three landed traitors, Scroop, Cambridge and Grey and later in France condemns his former friend Bardolph (Julius D’Silva) for stealing from a church. From Geoffrey Streatfeild we see a genuine sincerity as he listens to the men, he looks consternated and wide eyed as his imagination takes over. This Henry is always in awe of his success, modest and grateful for victory.
At Harfleur there is much crashing of trap doors bursting open and smoke. Men seem as if coming up from the trenches as the play seems to make more modern allusions. I heard the noise of battle and of cannon fire.The battle of Agincourt is an exciting affair with the French on trapezes, the English on ladders with white streamers fired out across the auditorium and the stage. There is smoke as the French hang upside down and blue feathers fall symbolic of the French losses. The French pull their own wooden coffins onstage and a new stage is built on top of these same coffins on which Henry can woo his French princess, Lady Katherine (Alexia Healy). Sadly the real Henry V dies very young but we do not have to worry about this yet. Besides his infant son Henry VI, he leaves behind a great victory over the traditional enemy France and convinces that his common touch made him a great wartime leader and force for unity.
Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3
These three plays are traditionally the least performed out of the Histories cycle. Written by a young Shakespeare, they suffer from a less rich texture, fewer emotional nuances and often clunky rhymes. It is probably fair to say that, if the Henry VIs were the sole surviving representation of Shakespeare’s work, he would not be the figurehead he is today. Nevertheless, as this production amply demonstrates, they are immensely stage-able, featuring bombast, multiple intrigues, warfare, unashamedly patriotic bias, grisly, cyclical revenge and fiendish witchcraft. First performed as part of the Complete Works festival, Michael Boyd’s production has obviously matured and the cast tackle the sometimes awkward text with the confidence and fluidity of a well-bonded ensemble.
As the plays themselves are more problematic, there is greater directorial innovation and original input which, for my money, makes them the most enjoyable of the entire Histories season. Unlike the Henry IVs, where the text both has the capacity, and is allowed to, speak for itself, these plays lack the same level of stunning poetry or psychological complexities and depths. They therefore require a strong directorial imprint to shape, add cohesion and increase audience engagement. Michael Boyd’s energetic direction does exactly this.
As with the other installments, the full height of the auditorium is fully exploited, with battle scenes waged on suspended ladders and warriors launching in on ropes, an entire scaffold platform which descends from the ceiling and aloft picture frames with illuminated actors to present offstage characters in lieu of portraits. The same irreverent attitude to the audience also continues, with members of the public mercilessly singled out and embarrassed: some get splattered in blood, others get minor props thrown at them and one even gets dragged onstage and threatened with decapitation by machete.
Again, the sheer bloodiness of the plot is embraced with abundant gore and violence. There are multiple blood-spurting stabbings, characters vomiting up blood, eyes gouged out and even a burning at the stake. Partly-decomposed corpses who suffered violence in previous plays haunt the stage as ghosts, making full use of the continuity of the ensemble. In addition to the realism of this extreme and frequent violence, the company doesn’t balk at its symbolic portrayal. For example, after Edward has established his sovereignty, he appears in full regal costume but his coat train trails in the pooled blood as he walks across the stage, leaving a bloody smear in his wake.
A more specific example of the production’s quirks and originality include the Cade rebellion, which is presented as a morbid, anarchic carnival, a moral netherworld threatening the country. Cade’s rabble include the vivified corpses of the characters killed in the course of the play, the headless body of Suffolk, a dark angel, a bird-headed man and others who simply sport black-lipsticked mouths. Alternatively, the French Dauphin and his minions mince onstage, posing and swishing their coat-tails with flair or they enter with a dagger-in-teeth commando roll. Appropriately enough for Shakespeare’s anti-French propaganda (although not strictly textually faithful), they are repeatedly terrified by Jean de Dunois (Jonathan Slinger) pretending to be a surprise attacker. When he is discovered as their prankster ally, they then hail him as "Bastard of Orleans".
The production’s exuberance, however, is held together by a cast that have worked together for over two years. They have obviously formed strong bonds and matured into their roles, discovering unexpected depths and connections. Thus, they avoid a schizophrenic, gimmick-ridden style which some of the production’s originality might otherwise risk. In particular, Chuk Iwuji is engagingly innocent as the youthful, pious Henry VI, under whose gentle nose vicious conspiracies are taking place. The full comic flair of John McKay is utilised as both Cade, whose ballet leaps continue until (and in fact just after) his death and the French Dauphin with a wig of beautiful golden ringlets and a Gallic panache. Jonathan Slinger provides a delicious taster for Richard III as the bloodthirsty third son of York, patently revelling in the slaughter of war, crudely mocked by other characters and revealing his embryonic machinations for the crown. Slinger is darkly, brilliantly charismatic and it’s often difficult to withdraw your eyes from him when he’s on stage.
Less subtle than the rest of the Histories, the audience is in no doubt who to hate and who to support fanatically. Partly forced by the patchy quality of the plays, but also enjoying a lower level of veneration for the text, the RSC team here take liberties which they may not otherwise do. With artistic energies thus freed up, there is a greater amount of innovation and a less traditionalistic treatment than the rest of cycle enjoys. Unlike many RSC productions whose trademark style is beautiful, clear but uncontroversial, the Henry VIs are refreshingly entertaining, flamboyant and inventive: the perfect formula for these tricky, orotund texts.
I think I am quite disappointed to find the play at the end of the Histories cycle in modern dress, after all those previous plays with cloaks swishing past me and swords held with arms akimbo, for the finale to be men in suits is rather grey (with the exception of Suffolk’s (Geoffrey Streatfeild) dapper, wide pinstripe). The director’s message is that what we experience as politics today is the true inheritance of the history of our realm, acts of terrorism, assassinations and putting your enemies in prison. We ended the Henry VIs on , for my money, Warwick’s overlong and over histrionic interpretation of his kingmaker/tribal chief role which at times seemed more like Pyramus’ scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The taster that Jonathan Slinger gave us for his Richard III after seeing him in Henry VI Part Three with a red Hitler haircut wig covering a strawberry birthmark, which makes that of Gorbachev look like a small mole, was all anticipation. He was childlike, bloodthirsty, eager to fight like an awkward, school playground, hanger on. Where would the delightful Mr Slinger now take us as Richard III comes of age? Would he be glittery and charming and villainous all rolled into one, or cerebral or witty or resentful of his deformity? Like our reviewer of the Henry VIs, I too found Slinger taking all of my attention onstage as he rocked around the playing area, the offset gait caused by the deformity of his leg his personality a delicate balance between fascinating and repelling.
But this Richard of Gloucester is subdued as he gets nearer power as though the director has told him to tone it down. Crazed Margaret of Anjou (Katy Stephens) carries around the bones of her murdered son in a bundle every so often stopping to arrange them back into the shape of a youth’s skeleton and she curses England. Maybe as a result of her curse, society breaks down, rubbish is strewn onstage and a door torn off a car joins the rubbish, there is a bomb and paratroopers descend to the stage on ropes. Hannah Barrie as the Lady Anne, Richard’s wife, looks ill with consumption for the coronation scene and at the coronation there is another parade of the dead, which has become a motif in these Histories. From her very first scene with Richard it is plain that she despises and detests him. Modern touches include Tyrrell (John Mackay) giving Richard proof of the murder of the princes on a cell phone camera. At significant moments of historical portent, a chime sounds from the percussionist, an annoying repetition that I have noticed before in the RSC history plays . . . Just in case you didn’t grasp it, what you have just heard was an event of later significance and importance! Ping!
At Bosworth Field Richard finds himself alone, without friends or allies and even a mount. There are a couple of totally sickly scenes where his successor the Earl of Richmond, Henry Tudor (Lex Shrapnel) later Henry VII and the grandfather of Shakespeare’s monarch Elizabeth I, is hagiofied. Richard Corderey as the Duke of Buckingham, Richard’s chief ally looks as if he is auditioning for a part in The Sopranos with his bulky gangster demeanour.
So we can congratulate ourselves on having sat through the Histories which total almost 24 hours in playing time with attendance at the Roundhouse on two days almost 13 hours long. Was it worth it? Yes. Was it tiring? Yes, but think how much more tired the ensemble cast would have been with their multiple roles. Why do it? Because seen together the meaning and interpretation has a continuity you cannot achieve seeing the individual plays. For instance we followed Joan of Arc (Katy Stephens) into her reincarnation as Margaret of Anjou and avenging "she wolf of France" (although she isn’t the only French queen married to an English king to get that nickname which earlier was applied to Isabella, wife of Edward II). If you are only able to see one play or three plays, see one or more of the the Henry VIs which are the most successful and have of course arrived at the starting post with a handicap. Who are the discoveries, the up and coming actors to look out for in future? Geoffrey Streatfeild whose eyebrows continue to fascinate me, Jonathan Slinger for his sheer inventiveness, Chuk Iwuji for his compassionate nature, and, especially in comedy roles with his divine long blonde curls, the prancing John Mackay. Well done RSC – shall I be there for 2016? Who knows? And will Keith Bartlett be in it as he was in 2000?
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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