Four Shakespeare plays condensed into 9 hours on one day. Back to back stories of kings, countrymen, crowns, and swords. Intimidating? A little. But this is the Wars of the Roses – directed by Trevor Nunn and adapted by John Barton and Peter Hall. Henry VI Parts I, II, III and Richard III get a stage of their own and tell the story of three great, infamous monarchs in a fascinating chronology of our history. Presented as Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III, the stories weave seamlessly into a gripping narrative.
Having never read any of Shakespeare’s histories, and having limited knowledge of pre-Tudor tales, I was impressed as much by the stories as by the acting of the day. This collaboration was first revealed in 1963 and showed a daring side to Shakespeare performance that hadn’t been seen before, Barton and Hall chopping and changing the original script, writing their own additions, and turning the texts into a marathon that works. From the young Henry VI, ascended too soon and coupled with a wife whose only focus was to keep the crown, to three brothers battling to reclaim their assumed bloodright of the English throne. A tale unravels of war, unrest, and ambition.
The 23-strong cast all deserve high praise, not just for being able to tackle each play with vigour and great intention, but to be able to sustain that back to back, totally 9 hours of stage time within a 12 hour day. The focus and dedication were wonderful to see, and the energy didn’t lag at any time during the process.
However, there were three actors in particular who were stand-out performances. Alex Waldmann’s Henry VI brought an incredible playfulness to the character. He was childlike and vulnerable, but had a beautiful complexity to his innocence that revealed the deep-set passions of the man who just wanted to bring peace to the country he loved. Starting out relatively naïve, Waldmann grew throughout the performances, ending in Richard III as a man resigned to his fate, understanding that the world was never going to leave well alone, but finally willing to voice his beliefs in a way that made him unpopular with peers, subjects, and most significantly, his wife.
Joely Richardson was the remarkable Queen Margaret, wife to Henry. Her unbridled confidence was stirring, and she was a phenomenally ambitious and fierce woman, played with the utmost commitment. With a passion of voice that was sometimes uncomfortable to listen to, she owned the stage in the way that the historic character undoubtedly owned each room, making up for her husband’s perceived passivity with an aggression matching any of the men around her. Strong around the committee table, and equally indomitable on the battle-field, Richardson never once let go of that intense desire to rule all.
However, the person who stole the show was Robert Sheehan. Richard III is not an easy character play, being seen as the great villain of Shakespeare, a king to be hated and despised. But Sheehan managed to make me care for this unfortunate, poorly understood young man. In Edward IV, we see his heart-warming relationship with his brothers, and ultimately the motives behind his brutal ascension. Sheehan played with Richard in a way that many actors are not brave enough to do, moving away from the typical villain and towards a flawed personality that strove to succeed. His expressions were stunning, glimpsing into the world of the audience with winks and sighs, making us laugh at the most inappropriate places. With his gait altered through a clever use of a leg brace and sling, he nevertheless struck a fearsome figure, defying all who might pity him, and instead imposing himself as someone to be revered and respected. For a young actor to come into such an intimidating role is a phenomenal achievement, and I was left with the feeling that I could have watched him do it all again. A sign of a true artist.
It had been a while since I’d been to the theatre, and I admit to feeling a little apprehensive about breaking the fast with a 9 hour festival of Shakespeare. But I couldn’t have chosen a better way to get my theatre fix and remind myself of how spectacular this man’s words are. If you can, get to see all three. If you can only stomach one, make it Richard III – the culmination of the remarkable story of these monarchs and complex families. Either way, this is a true testament to the power of brave performance.
Playing till 31st October 2015, see here for information and tickets.