Late to the party for these two History plays which opened in April whilst we were gallivanting on holiday around Scotland, but very happy to have caught up with them now. You might not recall Shakespeare writing plays called Rebellion or Wars of the Roses; that’s because they are, in fact, distillations from the great man’s Henry VI Parts Two and Three, which I was fascinated to discover were written before Henry VI Part One according to the programme, so presumably Part One is an early example of a prequel.
Picture the scene: Young and easily manipulated, Henry VI has married Margaret of Anjou. At the wedding breakfast, he’s chuffed that he’s got the girl; she’s even more chuffed that she’s got the country. But when Uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, reads the marriage treaty, he falters and can’t believe what he’s reading. It’s like the Northern Ireland Protocol but even harder to swallow. The concessions the King has made are worse than expected but Henry defends them as robust and oven-ready. Hang on, am I confusing this with News at Ten?
As a result all sorts of machinations get underway to make a play for kingship. Enemies are got out of the way (normally fatally), the crown gets passed from pillar to post; there’s even an uprising from the masses under Jack Cade. The Duke of York is the chief pretender; his three sons support his claim, although not consistently, and, by the end of the second play, (spoiler alert) young Richard Plantagenet, who would become king twelve years later, confronts the weak and mentally disturbed King Henry, and despatches him with a very vindictive knifing. Looking ahead, the RSC’s next production will be Richard III, with a continuation of the same actors in the roles that appear in both plays; I’m loving the continuity.
But that’s a matter for later in the summer. Owen Horsley’s magnificent double-production is slick, smart, haunting, and riveting. The biggest design idea, for want of a better word, is to have a roaming camera that creates a huge projection on the backdrop that closes in on the faces of the protagonists at telling moments. It’s a risky practice, but it works brilliantly, especially if you are seated in the front section of the audience, so you see it head on, as we did for Rebellion. Seated on the side, as we were for Wars of the Roses, the projection is a little harder to make out, and the camera operators on stage are a little more noticeable. Nevertheless, it’s a master stroke. It works particularly well when the camera is on the actors off-stage, such as when it follows Cade and his entourage encircling the building – very conspiratorial and alarming!
All the usual aspects of the production are done superbly, as you would expect with the RSC. Hannah Clark’s costumes, Simon Spencer’s lighting, Steven Atkinson’s warlike sound effects (I bet they make you jump) are all first rate. Sometimes I find the live music in such productions a little intrusive, but in this case it’s just perfect, performed live by six great musicians to Paul Englishby’s compositions. And – something you can’t always say with modern day Shakespeare – it’s strangely comforting to see a production that hasn’t been reset in a different time or location from what Will originally planned.
The cast are superb throughout. Central to the whole six hours is Mark Quartley as Henry, portrayed as a man who’s never at ease. A man who never wanted to be king, but longed to be a subject, this Henry is slow to react to victory, cautious in the face of adversity, prone to depression and looks to his Bible for support. Minnie Gale’s brilliant Margaret is a perfect opposite to him; demonstrative, sarcastic, not remotely reticent about showing her sexual preference for the Duke of Suffolk, to the extent that she cradles the latter’s disembodied head after it has been sliced off by a very upbeat band of pirates. Henry’s passive acceptance that his Queen is mourning the death of Suffolk more than might seem appropriate works well as a sign that he’s got bigger things to worry about. It’s worth noting that you’ll never see a larger collection of disembodied heads on stage than you do with these two plays. Kudos to the props department for making them look so like the equivalent actors. It made me wonder if they have a whole second selection of heads for when understudies are performing.
The vast supporting cast is full of excellent performances too. It’s great to see Paola Dionisotti with the RSC again and her performance as Winchester in Rebellion is a pure joy, as she carefully enunciates every word he says to the fullest richness of expression; not a syllable is wasted. Oliver Alvin-Wilson is an imposing York, Ben Hall a sneaky Suffolk, Nicholas Karimi a forceful Warwick, and Arthur Hughes a manipulative and snide Richard. There’s brilliant support (amongst others) from Richard Cant, Lucy Benjamin, Daniel Ward and Peter Moreton. Among the minor roles, Aaron Sidwell stands out as a charismatically terrifying Jack Cade, an alarming combination of Pol Pot, Arthur Scargill and Edward Scissorhands. But everyone is on top form, and the big scenes of battle impress you with their power and their sheer drama.
It’s a very intense production; we saw both halves on the same day, but I would recommend seeing them over two separate days, just to catch your breath. If there is a problem with it all, it’s that you can see one too many battle scene. I guess the only person to blame there is Shakespeare. But with so many alarums and excursions, there’s only so much warring one person can take before the appreciation of it all starts to shut up shop.
You haven’t got long to catch up with these plays; Rebellion runs in repertory until 28th May; Wars of the Roses until 4th June. Definitely worth it though!
Production photos by Ellie Kurttz