In what has been described by Robert O’Dowd, Chief Executive of the Rose Theatre, as their “biggest and most ambitious project to date”, Trevor Nunn’s revival of The Wars of the Roses brings the adaptation created by Peter Hall and John Barton back to the stage for the first time since its original showing at the RSC in 1963. In order to direct this epic trilogy for the Rose, Nunn – who saw the original production whilst he was a student – has worked closely with both Hall (his former mentor) and Barton.
Having undergone character cuts and textual re-writes, The Wars of the Roses is a fusion of Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays and Richard III, presented in three parts: Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. The decision to stage this production at the Rose Theatre is fondly fitting, not only because Hall was once artistic director there, but due to the Rose being a replica of the original Rose Playhouse on Bankside, where the Henry VI plays and Richard III were first performed.
The trilogy opens with Henry VI and we pick up the story of conflict between the House of York and the House of Lancaster after the death of King Henry V. Nunn paints the young Henry VI as a lovable and gentle king, whose disinterest in ruling stands at stark contrast with the ambitions of his power-hungry comrades. Henry’s yearning for peace is visualised in hippy-like fashion as he pins the red rose – symbolic of the Lancaster house – behind his ear instead of to his chest, declaring “Somerset or York, it’s all one to me” in a sing-song voice. We learn that Henry’s mind is “bent on holiness” and allusions are made to his potential homosexuality, through his lack of sexual interest in his wife Margaret.
The set, designed for the Rose by John Napier and Mark Friend, is a graceful bow to the original Rose Playhouse. Simple wooden planks and stairwells frame the back of the stage, with candles peeking out between the swords and shields hung across the walls. Mark Bouman’s costumes are fifteenth-century in style, and somehow all of this traditional simplicity of design allows for a respectful focus to be drawn towards the Shakespearean text being brought to life. The precedence given to the text throughout the trilogy makes it a brilliantly clear and accessible production; however, there are moments where language appears to overshadow emotional response, such as at Bedford’s death, where no real grievance is shown to match the sorrow expressed in the text. However, this is rectified by a moving performance from Alexander Hanson as the Duke of York in Edward IV, who captures all the anguish expected from a father at the loss of his son.
It is in Edward IV that we begin to delve into the gritty minds of many of the characters. Joely Richardson commandeers the stage in her energised performance as the “ruthless” Queen Margaret. Robert Sheehan, too, gives a commendable performance as the crippled and sarcastic Richard III. There is a bout of laughter from the audience as he rolls his eyes at the prospect of taking on the “ominous” title of Duke of Gloucester, and this is echoed in Richard III as a reaction to his insincere “alas!” at the death of his brother. Later, his monologue on seizing the crown receives a well-deserved round of applause too. It’s also hard not to warm towards Alex Waldmann’s Henry in Edward IV, who we believe when he says he wears his crown “in his heart”, and sympathise with as he sits barefoot on a molehill declaring “never subject longed to be a king as I do long to be a subject”.
One particularly praiseworthy moment in Nunn’s direction is that in which three members of the Rose Youth Theatre chase each other down the wooden stairwell, becoming the fully grown sons of the House of York by the time they reach the bottom. This visual display of the passing of time leads us smoothly through the transition of the younger generation becoming adults.
Richard III brings little new to the production in terms of style. This third part of the trilogy craves something to break up the monotonous throne being wheeled on and off, and the table rising and falling from centre stage. The set is eventually refreshed in the scene where King Richard and Richmond camp outside. Here sheets are artfully hung to resemble tents, and Paul Pyant’s lighting, casting silhouetted leaves on the ground beneath the two camp beds, is aesthetically pleasing. Pyant’s lighting is effective throughout the trilogy, particularly in the slow-motion strobe lit battle scenes.
I was suitably moved in the scene whereby the women of both houses unite and curse the eye-for-an-eye brutality their families have committed against one another, in their merciless aspirations for the throne. I was also appropriately spooked during the ghost scene in which Fergus O’Hare’s sound effects, echoing the ghostly whispers of the dead, come into their own.
This civil war, and epic trilogy, is brought to an end once Richmond has been crowned king. Whilst the future cannot be predicted, there is a satisfying sense of finality as Richmond ties the two flags together and declares “we will unite the white rose and the red” and “peace lives again”.
“Shakespeare recognises that good men can become bad kings”, points out Peter Hall. This notion seems to be a focal point around which many of Shakespeare’s original characters have been moulded for The Wars of the Roses. However it might be necessary to see the full trilogy, which you can do on Thursdays and Saturdays throughout the run, in order to grasp the character progressions here. With a cast of 23 professional actors and a further 30 youth theatre and community chorus members, The Wars of the Roses is an ambitious, thorough and lovingly crafted production – fine-tuned and accessible to seasoned and fresh-faced audiences alike.
The Wars of the Roses is playing at the Rose Theatre, Kingston until 31 October. For more information and tickets, see the Rose Theatre website. Photo by Mark Douet.