Gielgud Theatre, London W1
Opened 18 December, 2002

The other day I bought a DVD which included the Beyond The Fringe Shakespearean history play sketch: the king incomprehensibly directing his nobles, "Get thee to Gloucester, Essex; go thee to Wessex, Exeter..." and so on, ending with the couplet, "And I, most royally, shall now to bed/To sleep off all the nonsense I've just said." By chance, it was the following evening that I saw Edward III as part of the RSC's repertoire of little-known Elizabethan/Jacobean plays at the Gielgud Theatre, and I kept having flashbacks to Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller et al. on video.

Scholarly opinion has now swung towards attributing authorship of at least part of Edward III to a youngish Shakespeare, but much of it feels like pastiche, or at least pale shadows of scenes that he wrote better elsewhere. It opens with a speech on disputed royal succession, not as exciting as those in Henry V or Henry VI part 3, which is faint praise indeed. It also includes scenes of battle with the French and the siege of a French city likewise reminiscent of Henry V. Even the most confidently attributable segment, where King Edward is challenged by the Countess of Salisbury (a resolute Caroline Faber) that if he wishes to be her lover he must first kill her husband and his own wife, foreshadows both Measure For Measure and the temptation of Macduff in Macbeth.

But the writing thumps so dully, so often. Unlike any (other) Shakespeare play save one, it is entirely in verse, but there's so much padding in there just to preserve the metre. The shades of Beyond The Fringe rear up again when a French messenger ends his report of the battle of Crecy with "...Thus my tale is done:/We have untimely lost, and they have won." It demonstrates the difference between mere verse and poetry; still more seldom does the language spring into actual life.

This is the RSC production on which scheduled director Edward Hall walked out shortly before rehearsals began last spring. It still shows. Anthony Clark, who took over the reins, does a solid but staid job, epitomised by David Rintoul's King Edward with his armoured swagger and exaggerated sense of kingly rhetoric. Yet Patrick Connellan's design looks and often feels intended for the more audacious, more exuberant style characteristic of Hall's approach to history plays. When Clark tries to incorporate these elements the anachronisms of costume such that chainmail and ballpoint pens co-exist, or the contending kings conducting their campaigns from tennis umpires' seats and keeping score on huge abaci made of skulls the wackiness appears conjured up from a parallel but distinctly different plane of existence.

These two disparate dimensions come wonderfully together in the person of Jamie Glover as the Black Prince. Hitherto I had respected and admired but seldom outright liked Glover's performances. Here, though, he strikes exactly the right note of youthful heroism once again, a proto-Henry V, in fact. The play as a whole, however, remains an interesting bit of Shakespearean arcana but scarcely compelling in itself.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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