The Roundhouse, London NW1
Opened 6–7 May, 2008

The “i” in “parliament” is silent; its vocalisation is a recent and erroneous affectation. This may well be my greatest single criticism about the second tetralogy of Michael Boyd’s RSC production of Shakespeare’s history plays. All else is not quite perfect enough to warrant a five-star rating, but excellent enough to make four seem somewhat niggardly.
Although portraying events subsequent to those of the Richard II / Henry IV parts 1&2 / Henry V tetralogy, these plays were written earlier, and indeed may well be the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays to survive. One can see a progression in authorship skills from the unsubtle jingoism of part 1 (with Joan of Arc portrayed as a promiscuous witch) to the greater complexities of Richard III, which deftly combines a plot emphasising the legitimacy of the then-reigning Queen Elizabeth’s grandfather Henry VII’s ascension to the throne at the end of the Wars of the Roses with a grim indictment of how corruption in the body politic may rack the whole country beyond the court. The staging in the Roundhouse space, too (in which a clone of the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford has been erected), makes the cycle feel like a civic event of sorts. I do not recall, when watching Boyd’s previous staging of this production in the Young Vic in 2001, such a sense of the audience bearing witness as citizens to the narrative of the state.
There is, I think, a greater coherence to this tetralogy than to the other. Motifs can be more tellingly woven through. Keith Bartlett and Lex Shrapnel play a succession of dramatically powerful fathers and sons, beginning with Bartlett as Henry VI’s great general Lord Talbot (who in some ways is more the focus of part 1 than the king himself), ending with Shrapnel as the Earl of Richmond (Henry VII to be), and sounding most keenly in part 3 where, in one of Shakespeare’s greatest meditations on the hell of war, we see at the battle of Towton “a son who has killed his father” and “a father who has killed his son”. Jonathan Slinger (of whom more later) first appears in part 1 as the Bastard of Orleans, repeatedly irking the other French nobles by running on as if to attack them then removing his helmet to reveal himself; this continues through other roles until, early in his portrayal of Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III), he subverts the image by jokingly donning headgear instead… the “garment” being the sliced-off face of one of his victims in battle.
The supernatural weaves its way through the plays, as the handful of ghosts in the script are joined by a succession of largely mute, ethereal witnesses to their successors’ wrongs, and also by the red-robed Antony Bunsee in a variety of minor roles as assorted castellans and wardens which coalesce into a single figure designated in the cast list as “the Keeper”, but in effect almost the Reaper: if you see Bunsee nearby, or observing from the balcony of Tom Piper’s steel-rampart set, best make your peace with God post-haste.
Chuk Iwuji’s King Henry begins as a surprisingly convincing adolescent in part 1, maturing throughout the three plays as he becomes more aware of the increasingly bitter divisions between the factions of the red rose and the white but never quite able to be the king that his court requires; his final retreat into monkish contemplation seems neither a culpable act of weakness nor (as history suggests) a mental breakdown. Patrice Naiambana is a coolly swaggering, self-regarding Earl of Warwick; when England begins to call him “the kingmaker”, it is clearly only catching up with this Warwick’s opinion of himself. Katy Stephens is a little too demonstrative as Joan of Arc, but her later Queen Margaret of Anjou (Henry’s wife) is a figure of steel and fire, manipulating the politicking courtiers and finally almost incandescent in her grief when she returns in Richard III bearing, literally, a bag of bones.
Increasingly, what we see laying waste to court and country is madness: a madness in the polity driven by differing shades of insanity among individuals, and none more so than Jonathan Slinger’s Richard Crookback. Yet, despite Richard’s voiced resolve “to prove a villain”, this is not a deliberate, moustache-twirling adoption of the left-hand path; as Richard switches in an instant between screaming passion and throwaway black humour, it becomes apparent that what he really is is a maniac, but a lucid maniac… the most terrifying kind. Slinger begins this eight-play cycle with a very different, but almost equally unsettling, portrayal of Richard II; such impressive bookend performances, along with his others herein, from the Bastard of Orleans to a shockingly brutal Fluellen in Henry V, make the next twelve months’ batch of assorted Shakespeare performance awards all foregone conclusions. The Histories project as a whole ends later this month after a two-year term of service for its actors; it augurs well for Boyd’s vision of reintroducing an ensemble approach to the RSC.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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