Writer: William Shakespeare
Adapted by: Jeanie O’Hare
Director: Elizabeth Freestone
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
The Royal Exchange Theatre acknowldege that this retelling of the royal backdrop to the Wars of the Roses makes use of original text by William Shakespeare, drawn from his history plays. The perspective is that of the wife of Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, who made up for her husband’s weakness with her own forcefulness and strength of purpose. She did this to such an extent that while her beauty was acknowledged, her femininity was accorded less weight than her fierceness, described by one of her enemies as “stern, obdurate, flinty, rough, remorseless”.
Margaret features in four of Shakespeare’s histories, although not as a central character. The business of war, after all, is largely pursued by men of power, rather than their womenfolk. By distilling Margaret’s contribution to each of these dramas, and adding fresh narrative to make this her-story rather than his-story, Jeannie O’Hare has built a very credible parallel to the Shakespeare canon. More creditably, she has created lines of her own that comfortably sit alongside those of the original text, keeping faith with the rhythms and constraints of blank verse. Better still, to those of us who become easily confused by the intricacies and conspiracies which interlace the Wars of the Roses, she has provided a point of contact with the shifting political and military tides which helps us keep our footing.
The outcome is a very modern drama, which “samples” Shakespeare, with proper reverence, but also gives a very contemporary spin on the heartbreaking division of civil war – where families may find themselves on opposite sides of the same battlefield. (Anyone for Brexit?). Actors wear modern dress, Margaret puffs on the odd fag, the sons of the (female) Duke of York sit on bean bags playing computer games while arguing over the succession: When mobs run riot in 16th Century London, a looter in a hoodie makes off across the stage with an oversized television. This is a very 21st Century take on civil strife and power struggles, rather than a re-hash or cut-and-paste of Shakespeare’s histories. Quite brilliantly, the addition of a ghostly Joan of Arc, condemned to haunt the earth because of the manner of her dispatch by the English, provides its own revenge tragedy theme to the mix, remains a constant reminder of Margaret’s French origins, and the longer arc of history between the two nations. The whiff of smoke from the pyre never leaves the stage.
Having praised Jeannie O’Hare’s treatment of the subject matter, and her faithfulness to the original inspiration, the key question relates to how well the Royal Exchange have translated this into drama on the stage. Or rather, on the raised circular platform which provides the setting for the action, at the centre of this most rounded of venues. And here, the technical artistry of the theatre adds layers of depth and meaning through simple, but brilliant use of space, sound and light. Above the stage shine golden rings, a crown at various times majestic, lop-sided, diminished, as the struggle for kingship plays out below. At stage level, the central green circle is illuminated at various times as a pentagram, a sacred space, or a medieval board game. Snowflakes, pamphlets, and a hail of bullets fall from above to grace or smash the mood.
Sound effects from the eerie to the shockingly dramatic are woven into the drama, never off-beat. After the battle of Towton, when 30,000 men took “the sacrament of death”, the entire cast sing a lament which resonates powerfully as the body count rises, verse on verse. The human voice can be a scalpel to the soul when used as effectively as here. Other stage business, props, and furniture were modern, minimal, and unobtrusive. Even the throne, the seat of power, was no more than an office chair. But its significance was not diminished.
There are only eleven actors on stage during the entire play, and all of them deserve mention for their contribution to this brave adventure. Jade Anouka brilliantly transitioned from the naive princess to the fierce matriarch, amazonian warrior, and protective mother as the role developed. Max Runham, as Henry, had fewer purple passages, but was entirely convincing as the politically and physically weak, sickly but spiritual, king. Dexter Flanders made a chilling Clifford, the Angel of Death of the Lancastrian forces. But Helena Lymbery, as Hume, stole several scenes. Hume equates to the Common Man in “A Man for All Seasons”. She carries the narrative, is involved at various points, announces the chapter headings, comments from the sidelines on the more torpid arguments, and acts as Margaret’s “common sense”, as much as Joan of Arc acts as her French conscience. She is our point of connection with the lives of the remote princes whose divisions shape this drama.
This is a dramatic construction with all the depth of a Shakespeare history play, the best of its richness of language, the intelligence to weave that respectfully with modern perspectives, the inventiveness to use new technologies to excite new responses, and a cast and crew tuned to draw every nuance from the script.
Runs until 6 October 2018 | Image: Contributed