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Theatre Review Shakespeare’s apprentice work lacks depth of later plays

A litany of battles, infused with gratuitous cruelty, struggles to engage sustained attention, believes GORDON PARSONS

Henry VI: Rebellion ★★★
Wars of the Roses ★★★
The Royal Shakespeare Theatre
Stratford-upon-Avon

THE RSC programme announces the ambition to produce the complete canon of Shakespeare’s plays over future seasons.

They must be relieved to have got the final two parts of Shakespeare’s dramatisation of the ferocious 15th-century political power struggles under their belt.

These early histories, very popular in his day, have never held the attraction of the subsequent Henry IV and Henry V plays for later audiences.

The characters, satirised in a famous Beyond the Fringe sketch, sound like an English tour guide.

Even the most attentive playgoer may find it difficult to distinguish Exeter, Somerset, Richmond, Buckingham, Salisbury, Warwick, Gloucester and York, endlessly hurling insults at one another in their struggle to control the pathetically decent but ineffectually weak King Henry.

Director Owen Horsley’s attempt to draw some coherence from the conspiratorial intrigues of part one, Rebellion, and part two, the Wars of the Roses, with its litany of battles, infused with gratuitous cruelty, struggles to engage sustained attention.

This is owing to a number of factors. What was for the Bard’s original audiences fairly recent history — we can still find the WWI interesting — has now become a distant part of the historical tapestry.

Moreover, as we are currently sated with television images of real war and its atrocities, theatrical spectacle makes for a shallow impact.  

Finally, Shakespeare’s apprentice work reveals nothing of the depth of characterisation and only hints at the poetic resonance of his later plays.

The famous John Barton and Peter Hall 1963 production at this theatre, followed by Michael Boyd’s 2006 nine-hour marathon, demonstrated that any modern director of these plays must find a way to draw modern parallels to our own experiences. Horsley does this to an extent in his period costumed production.

No modern combat fatigues here but huge back projections of the stage action, often filmed by an unobtrusive camera man, emphasise key moments of anguish and reminds us of our current media-packaged war diet.

None of these reservations detract from the commitment of a 40-strong cast, among whom Minnie Gale’s Queen Margaret who evolves, throughout the action of The Wars of the Roses, from a coquettish manipulator of the court to the “blood besotted Neapolitan” in the words of Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s grotesquely tortured York.

Mark Quartley’s vacillating Henry is a dry run for Richard II’s poet king while Arthur Hughes Richard demonstrates promising signals of Shakespeare’s most engaging villain, Richard III, to appear later in the season.

Plays in tandem until June 4: Box office: 01789 331-111 / rsc.org.uk.

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