Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1
Opened 16 June, 2002

As with Edward Hall's 2000-01 RSC production of Henry V, his Rose Rage begins with the youngish ensemble cast on stage, preparing for the action. But this time there is an unambiguous visual metaphor: the company of twelve are dressed as slaughtermen, and are rhythmically sharpening knives and cleavers on a set designed as an abattoir.

When this adaptation of Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays gets under way, actors change into vaguely Edwardian costume to portray the major characters, but a number of white-clad, face-masked supernumeraries are never far away. Murders are symbolised by hacking or battering red cabbages (the sound effects man's regular stand-in for FX of beheading) or consignments of offal... and the reek of death from the unsightly stuff permeates well into the Haymarket auditorium. Take strong mints along.

First seen early last year at the Watermill near Newbury, Hall and Roger Warren's adaptation is no more a work of delicacy than is the stage imagery. Shoehorning three Shakespearean plays into just under four hours of playing time (presented in two separate parts) requires brutal cutting. The Joan of Arc plot goes entirely, so that, from the opening obsequies for the late Henry V, we skip several scenes to move directly to the Temple Gardens as court factions pluck red or white roses to identify their respective causes.

This is all about battle and faction, ambition and indecision. Even truncated as the script is, though, Hall and Warren have managed to retain a clarity to the endlessly shifting and reconfiguring political side as much as to the martial action. This is not least due to the collective spirit which drives Hall's Propeller company. Director and actors do not shirk broad, immediate portrayals, and even bring out a grim humour in some of the most sombre moments, but always in the service of the real story. Unison singing "Abide With Me", "Jerusalem" or Latin liturgical chant is used to signal a collective spirit whether of war or devotion (though I could personally have done without Kentish pretender Jack Cade's rabble-rousing being turned into a kind of Plantagenet gangsta rap).

The cast is composed entirely of men: Robert Hands as King Henry's baleful queen Margaret and Simon Scardifield as Lady Elizabeth Grey use simple vocal and physical devices to signify femininity. This is a long way from drag acting, but they are nevertheless a little confined in terms of emotional range. (In contrast, Scardifield makes a much shorter but rather more effective appearance as the young Earl of Rutland, murdered in his bed.)

Again like that Henry V, this is the story not of individual kings and nobles, but of England: the whole stage is frequently draped with a huge cross of St George. Jonathan McGuinness's vacillations as Henry VI, Guy Williams' determination as York, Tim Treloar's dim boorishness as Edward IV... all are portraits less of individuals than of the various kinds of upheavals in governance suffered by the country as a whole.

Even Richard Clothier as Richard of Gloucester feels a little formal and unfocused only because this adaptation ends before we are shown all that Gloucester is capable of. But we know that what's to come is Richard III. Here, though, we see in closing the victory celebrations after the Battle of Tewkesbury; Crookback turns to us and intones knowingly, "Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this son of York," then, smiling, signals the final blackout. The rest, too, is history.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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