Writers: Adapted from Shakespeare by John Barton in collaboration with Peter Hall
Director: Trevor Nunn
Reviewer: Alex Ramon
“Shakespeare’s Game of Thrones: The Ground-Breaking Trilogy” trumpets the publicity for Trevor Nunn’s production of The Wars of the Roses, John Barton and Peter Hall’s seminal 1963 RSC adaptation of Shakespeare’s first historical tetralogy, which telescopes Henry VI Parts 1—3 and Richard III into three plays focusing on the 15th Century conflict between the Houses of York and Lancashire. The allusion to HBO’s phenomenally popular George R. R. Martin’s adaptations was doubtless thought to be an ideal means with which to entice a contemporary audience into an epic nine hours of Shakespearean historical drama. But it’s also a slightly misleading one. For, watching Nunn’s production unfold over an epic Press Day on Saturday, it’s less the sex-and-violence trashiness of Game of Thrones that’s called to mind, and more the stately approach of the BBC Shakespeare series of the 1970s and 80s.
That comparison isn’t meant as a diss, though. For if The Wars of the Roses exhibits some of Nunn’s vices as a director – notably, a slightly dogged, diligent quality that can lead to dull spots – it also boasts, in spades, his virtues, too: exceptional clarity and lucidity; superb performances from an expertly-employed ensemble; and moments of great feeling and piercing insight. While aspects of the production are merely functional – Guy Woolfenden’s undistinguished drums-and-trumpets score, for one – for the most part, this gimmick-free production (about as far removed from, say, Rupert Goold’s flashy, Las Vegas-set The Merchant of Venice as can be imagined) gives “traditional” approaches to Shakespeare a good name.
Talking about the original RSC production, Peter Hall proclaimed that “a presentation of one of the bloodiest and most hypocritical periods in history [can teach us] many lessons about the present”, while Peggy Ashcroft, who played Margaret of Anjou in Hall’s production, argued for seeing in the plays “a microcosm of so many of the violent and tragic conflicts of our own time.” While it will be argued that Nunn’s approach sells any contemporary connections short, in not hammering home modern-day parallels, the new production actually achieves a more timeless vision of the mechanisms of power, as betrayals, plots and counter-plots, and surprising switchings of sides, accumulate. With a sometimes inventive use of the Rose auditorium, and an unfussy yet evocative design by Mark Friend, Nunn’s production certainly succeeds in providing a strong sense of scale and scope, while also allowing intimate moments to really resonate: essential for plays that encompass so many locations and that take in such a wide scope of English society.
The “all-white” casting ensured that the production was controversial before anyone clapped eyes on it. But, problematic as this undoubtedly is, it can’t be denied that one of the production’s central pleasures are the performances. Most of the actors get to take on more than one rôle across the three plays, with Imogen Daines impressing as a rowdy, rabble-rousing Joan of Arc in Henry VI and as an easily-seduced Lady Anne in Richard III, and Michael Xavier contributing a sexy Suffolk and a touching Clarence. With her habit of throatily delivering even the most innocuous line as though it contained The Very Meaning of the Play, Alexandra Gilbreath is, as often, at once mannered and marvelous throughout, making something witty and delicious out of her ambitious Duchess of Gloucester in Henry VI and proving a fierce, memorable Queen Elizabeth in Richard III.
Other performers shine in a major rôle. Alex Waldmann is a sensational King Henry, growing and deepening from innocent youth to a kind of piousness that seems indistinguishable from deep inner strength. Buffeted so much by fortune, his Henry finally seems to be able to accept both victory and defeat with equal equanimity, even, in a startling final moment of forgiveness, tenderly kissing his murderer.
Joely Richardson moves compellingly from not-so-innocent girlishness to impassioned warrior as Margaret, leaving us in no doubt that this Queen finds her true métier on the battlefield. Richardson is never better than when proclaiming “I am ready to put armour on”, and she looks sensational in it, too. The actress’s final appearance as the grey-haired, curse-delivering elderly Margaret is also terrific, and Richardson’s resemblance to her mother Vanessa Redgrave is so strong in these scenes that the performance takes on a whole new aura of ghostliness. And the expert Robert Sheehan is a great Richard III: light-voiced, pragmatic, entirely plausible, and every inch the “bottled spider” of Margaret’s description.
The quality of the cast (and fine work from Oliver Cotton, Alexander Hanson, Rufus Hound and Susan Tracy also deserves mention) ensures that the productions feel fully inhabited, and while there are some inevitable flags and lags in pacing, the cumulative impact of the shows is considerable. (The three plays can, of course, also be watched on separate evenings or afternoons, for those who might balk at an all-day marathon.) As should be clear by now, Nunn’s Wars of the Roses isn’t the place to come for radical innovation, but the production’s intelligence and attention to detail make it a rewarding experience, and one of the Rose’s finest achievements to date.
Runs until 31 October 2015 | Image: Mark Douet