Rose Theatre, Kingston/St James Theatre, London (****/***)
Peter Hall and John Barton’s The Wars of the Roses in 1963 was a defining moment, one of many for the RSC in the 1960s. Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Cherry Orchard with Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and a young Judi Dench – these were just some of the highlights during a first decade of the company’s life when productions at the RSC were indeed events and happenings putting them at the forefront of British cultural life.But The Wars of the Roses was special. For one thing, it was long; Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays and Richard III reshaped into three plays – Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III, played consecutively in a day to get their full impact. Together they made an epic retelling of the family blood-letting and war-torn rampage that marked 15th British history in the battle between the houses of Lancaster and York.
The Henry Vis were early Shakespeare, written in rhyme, and in recent times, easily parodied or as now copied in its internecine battles and violence for mass production by HBO’s Games of Thrones, ironically stuffed to the gunnels with the best of British acting talent (Stephen Dillane, Iain Glen, Charles Dance to name a few).
But for Hall and his colleague, John Barton – Cambridge men both – Shakespeare’s `apprentice’ plays told an immense story about power, politics and cycles of revenge that spoke immediately to them and that era of cultural and social turbulence.
Fortunate enough to see that original production, they made thrillingly alive – and clear – the machinations of political ambition and manipulation, the ebb and flow of history and vacillating fortunes of the powerful as of the populace – its personalities, Margaret of Anjou, Suffolk, Warwick, the Yorkists forever alive in the imagination.
Trevor Nunn was then a fledgling student, watching the pageants unfold before him. His revival 50 years on of his mentors’ iconic collaboration, at Kingston’s Rose Theatre, itself created by Hall as a replica of the Rose Theatre on Bankside where the Henry Vis were first staged, is an act of homage as well as considerable chutzpah.
The history marathon of the ‘60s – as subsequent revivals by Hall and Nunn’s successors, particularly Michael Boyd – were built on an ensemble of actors working together over a number of months if not years. Nunn’s current ensemble will have been brought together just for this one event. To be running them together takes stamina as well as a shared sense of working together. That it succeeds as well as it does is a fantastic achievement and is due in no small part to the sheer momentum created by the plays’ hurtling action and psychological portraits so cunningly edited, rewritten and reworked by Barton with Hall.
The Rose too proves a perfect setting, a wide open stage dominated by John Napier’s two tiers of wooden platforms, embellished with worn and battered shields.
Nunn with associate director Cordelia Monsey dispenses generally with other props: a table, chairs, a throne, a medieval bath-chair for ailing monarchs and bishops suffice apart from – and these are crucial – heavy metallic swords.
John Bury’s original design made much of the sound of leather and clanking armoury; so too Michael Boyd’s stagings in Stratford and at the RoundHouse in 2007/8. One of the best things of this Nunn revival are the fights – of which there are many, expertly choreographed by Malcolm Ranson – swords flashing, smoke billowing, and cast dressed to the nines – including Joely Richardson’s Queen Margaret in dashing silver chain-mail.
And that perhaps is one of the minuses of Nunn’s revival. It’s as though these productions have come down to us, intact, from the 1950s. After all the innovations and changes in theatre fashion of the past half century, the productions boast an old fashioned style about them, especially in the verse speaking – the plus being almost every word is heard!
With one appalling exception – and unfortunately in a pivotal role – the acting standard too is remarkably high with stand-out performances from a large cast including Alexander Hanson as Richard Plantagenet (later Duke of York), Michael Xavier as Lancastrian supporting, self-serving Suffolk, wooing and winning Margaret of Anjou for Alex Waldman’s saintly king, Henry VI (a sweet, sufficient performance) and Alexandra Gilbreath making much of the usually thankless role of Edward IV’s wife, Elizabeth Grey.
But apart from the overall achievement, Nunn’s revival is likely to be remembered for Robert Sheehan’s Richard. Like Ben Whishaw, plucked by Nunn to play Hamlet as an unknown, catapulting him overnight into the first rank, Sheehan’s Machiavellian hunchback is likely to be as career defining.
Leaving aside the whole notion of deformity as a stereotype for evil, never mind Shakespeare’s Tudor propagandising character assassination of Richard III, Sheehan’s is a wonderfully refreshing take – the words tripping off his tongue with assurance, cunning, petulance and ultimately fear and conscience.
Shakespeare’s villains so often end up struck down by conscience. Sheehan makes his Richard rendered a quivering wreck by those malign ghostly visitors wishing him ill on the eve of battle in Bosworth Field.
All in all, definitely a trip worth making if you like your theatre stirring, educational with lessons for today as ripe as ever.
And finally, a thought to ponder on from seeing this and other history cycles. When men butcher in war they become warriors, war heroes; a female revenging her cub (as here with Queen Margaret) is seen as a monster.
Shakespeare is rife with stereotypes. Over the years, they’ve come to be challenged. Happily, the resuscitation of Richard’s reputation is one of them. Women as warriors is maybe another whose time has come.
Imagination of another sort has also been abroad this week.
On a completely different note, award-winning writer/composer/songwriter Leslie Bricusse is being celebrated in a musical entitled Pure Imagination – a compilation of his best-known and other songs.
Bricusse it is who has penned some of this country’s most favourite songs – hits like Goldfinger, If I Ruled the World, What Kind of Fool Am I, Talk to the Animals, the Pink Panther – his name associated with artists as varied as Harry Secombe, Anthony Newley, Shirley Bassey, Julie Andrews and Sammy Davis Jnr with whom he had a long friendship. His compositions for film and stage are legion: Doctor Dolittle, Victor/Victoria, The Roar of the Greasepaint, Scrooge, Stop the World I Want to Get Off and many, many more.
From Pure Imagination, you get a sense of a composer whose foremost outlook was one of optimism and the possibility of goodness in life. Devised by Bricusse with director Christopher Renshaw and producer Danielle Tarento (the latter, one of the powerhouses behind the recent string of musical successes at Southwark Playhouse) – the cast of five and live band whiz through over 50 of his numbers with huge aplomb.
Siobhán McCarthy, an unforgettable Mrs Lovett in the Sweeney Todd revival that started out in a pie shop in Tooting before graduating to the West End is again in fine form. So too, Dave Willetts, a musical `veteran’ whose delicate pointing of lines makes you realise all over again the skill of matching mood to meaning. Lovely work too from Giles Terera – a singer of real pathos whose remarkable resemblance to Sammy Davis makes his singing of Davis’s What Kind of Fool Am I all the more poignant.
Best of all, the `coda’ finale, an all-cast funky rendering of `Feeling Good’. I’d always associated this number as being a creation of the incomparable Nina Simone. But no, turns out Bricusse wrote it with Anthony Newley for the 1964 stage musical, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd.
Sit back and enjoy.
Pure Imagination is at St James’ Theatre, London to Oct 17, 2015
The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Theatre, Kingston-on-Thames, London to Oct 31 2015
First published in Londongrip, Oct 2015