Review: The War of the Roses ~ theatre notes

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Review: The War of the Roses

History is the discourse of power

Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended

Here's a good world the while! Why, who's so gross
That cannot see this palpable device?

Richard III, III, 6

Borders are always drawn in blood and states marked out with graves.

Ratko Mladić, Serbian Army Chief of Staff during the Balkan War

Beginning with King John and ending with Henry VIII, the ten works known as Shakespeare’s History Plays dramatise five generations of brutal power struggle in mediaeval England. Although they were never written to be performed as cycles or as single epic works, the contemporary stage has seen a number of notable versions of the history plays as epic theatre. Peter Hall inaugurated the Royal Shakespeare Company with a cycle of eight plays, The Wars of the Roses, in 1964; again with the RSC, Adrian Noble made The Plantagents, an adaptation of the second tetralogy in 1988. Michael Bogdanov directed another famous seven-play adaptation, The Wars of the Roses, at the English Shakespeare Company in 1987. And so on.

Less illustriously, Bell Shakespeare did their own version, Wars of the Roses, in 2005. That production begged the question: why should 21st century Australians be interested in plays that are so crucially concerned with the question of Englishness, and which in fact have been formative of the fiction of English national consciousness? Can our staging these plays be anything more than a colonial gesture of defiance or obsequiousness, either being different sides of the same cultural coin? Or is there something else going on in these plays that can elicit a proper contemporary attention? Is there still something they can reveal?

Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews answer these questions authoritatively with their adaptation, The War of the Roses. Rendering eight plays in four acts over eight hours, this is a work of massive intellectual and theatrical ambition that will be impossible to encompass properly here. Trying to think about it is rather like a pleasurable version of Hercules's adventures with the Hydra: every time I address a thought, another two spring up and demand attention. But, as Wittgenstein so comfortingly says, one has to begin somewhere.

The War of the Roses is theatre of a rare and desolating beauty. It generates its startling visual richness from a poverty of illusion. Andrews strips the stage to its back walls and finds for each of the four acts a single informing (and utterly transparent) theatrical metaphor. This lyric simplicity has the effect of framing and foregrounding Shakespeare's language. It highlights the literary beauty, wit and power of the speeches, not by reverent attention to their formalities, but through excessive physical demands on the performers, which excavate the visceral truths of poetry.

In these plays, The War of the Roses is no longer plural. It is a single war, an Orwellian total war without end, a war in which peace is only war by other means, a war very close to that within which we live. And yes, in this intellectually epic realisation, Wright and Andrews demonstrate that there is indeed a reason to mount these plays in this day and time. Yes, they are parables that concern themselves with much more than narrow questions of British nationalism or pretty kings. Yes, in these old stories of English kings we can see, reflected in their faces, our own complicities, our own shames. They reflect for us the nightmare of our history, the blind, murderous tragedy that continues in our own time.

Power never goes out of fashion.


Giving it the proper capitals, Shakespearean critic Jan Kott called it the Grand Mechanism: the eternally revolving machine of History that raises high and casts low, so that he who at first believes he makes history becomes at last history’s plaything, the executioner executed. In the History Plays, the primal violence that inaugurates the State is laid bare; the illusions that conceal its bloody origins are torn roughly aside. Pomp and ritual, the notion of justice, the vision of an “anointed king” whom God blesses, or a President with a personal phone line to the Almighty, all fly up like the painted scenery on a stage to reveal a bleak world driven by the machinery of power, in which the only thing that counts is who is stronger. In this world, the world that Shakespeare brought to artistic fruition in the dark, bestial universe of King Lear, history is Godless and bereft of meaning.

The wheel turns: the pretender murders the king and seizes the crown, only to become himself a victim. Thus, as Camus sardonically observed, you might witness the true meaning of Revolution. Hegel thought history had a deeper and rational purpose, the evolution of the human spirit towards freedom and enlightenment: Marx, following Hegel, thought it a mechanism that would generate freedom for the masses enslaved by capital. But Shakespeare’s view of history is altogether starker.

It is, in many ways, a pre-Christian vision. As a young man, Shakespeare encountered the Latin poets, in particular Seneca, whose bloody tragedies influenced works like Titus Andronicus, and Lucan. Marlowe's translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia, his epic poem about the Roman Civil Wars, was popular in Elizabethan England when Shakespeare was writing the Henry VI plays, and may in fact have been their model. In this poem, Lucan describes the cosmos as a malfunctioning machine facing inevitable collapse under its own weight, a universe without meaning or purpose. Certainly in both works, ruinous civil wars lead to the creation of a tyrant – Caesar in one, Richard III in another.

Like Lucan and Seneca, Shakespeare saw history as an endless wheel of pain, a cycle of suffering that serves no purpose but its own continuation, and whose only production is corpses. The wheel turns and turns again: blood oils the axle, its iron rim crushes the human body under its irresistible weight, the next king rises and murders and falls. And for what? For the golden circle that is without beginning or end, the empty crown of state, the beautiful delusion that, once it has seduced its victims, reveals its true face:

...for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court...

Richard II, III, 2


Eight hours, eight plays, one hundred years. Shakespeare’s medium was time, his tool was language. He used language to sculpt time, revealing the sinews of History, its dynamic, dramatic form. Andrews and Wright have sculpted Shakespeare, cutting back the eight plays to their essential speeches, laying bare the bones of language and time that underlie the flesh of history.

The War of the Roses is an oratorio, a series of soliloquies made by people in agonising solitude. The protagonists are caught outside historical action, in the isolating interstices when they become conscious of the implications of their acts. As the audience, we become their silent witnesses, their co-conspirators, their allies and enemies and subjects. It's a bold reworking that seems to create theatre at its purest and most essential, and yet the result continuously demands comparison to other arts, demonstrating its essential impurity: you think it is pure music, pure sculpture, pure poetry. Pure vision, pure dream.

Wright and Andrews have loosened the self-consciousness of the Renaissance stage, summoning an earlier idea of theatre. As the Shakespearean scholar Anne Richter noted, mediaeval drama implied both audience and player in one transcendent reality: the Easter plays were originatory rituals, where time future and time past were resolved into an infinite present. Shakespeare’s plays were part of a reality that splintered this holistic pageantry: his plays were the culmination of the secularisation of the dramatic stage, the zenith of the self-contained, self-conscious, articulate world that was the great invention of the Elizabethans.

Yet when the fire-curtain silently rises on the first stunning image of the cycle – Cate Blanchett as Richard II seated in a throne, surrounded by her unmoving courtiers, while an endless fall of gold leaf rains down onto the stage – what we see is not a Renaissance image, nor even a modern image. It is a mediaeval image, recalling in its hieratic formality nothing so much as the famous portrait of Richard II that is now in Westminster Abbey. And like the mediaeval pageants, this is a theatre that directly addresses us, which seeks to makes us implicit in its world. Through the four acts, we are begged, importuned, commanded, rebuked; we weep and laugh and are bewitched. We are not apart from this world. It even makes us flinch in immediate, visceral fear at the end of Part One, in an extraordinary coup of lighting: a huge shadow seems to fall from the top of the theatre as the curtain closes, as if a wall of darkness is falling onto us, a winged omen of dread. This theatre is more than a mirror. It is us.

There are of course still dialogic scenes – most notably the brilliant scene in Richard III when Richard (Pamela Rabe), the killer of Anne’s (Cate Blanchett) father and husband, seduces her as she follows the corpse of Henry VI, whom Richard has also murdered; or the scenes between Falstaff (John Gaden) and the wild, contemptuous young Hal (Ewen Leslie) in Henry V. But these play out in relief against a frieze of grinding existential solitude, and call into question the very basis of human communication. This is what makes The War of the Roses a contemporary production, rather than a nostalgic glance back to a romantic history: each character here is as pitilessly exposed, as cruelly alone, as any character in Beckett.

The War of the Roses begins and ends with two tragedies, Richard II and Richard III, which between them comprehend the decadence of power. They rhyme in more than name. Where Richard II is accompanied for more than an hour with a rain of gold, Richard III is performed on a children’s playground on which falls, silently and mercilessly, an endless rain of ash that blurs and conceals the corpses that accumulate about the stage.

In Richard II, we witness something more profound than mere regicide: we see the death of the idea of the king, the humanising of the sacred mouth of God to a mere mortal man, a foreshadowing of Lear’s realisation that he is but a “poor bare, forked stick”. In Richard III, we see what happens when desacralised power is put into conscious action. Richard II believes, up to the moment of his death and despite his forced abdication, that he is a king by divine right; Richard III knows he is king by right of his own malice, deception and violence. Richard II is a melancholy dream of a vain but sacred illusion that is ultimately destroyed by the concealed power that sustains it; Richard III a terrifying vision of amoral brutality.

In between the two tragedies, six plays are compressed into two acts. These follow the histories of three King Henrys, IV, V and VI. We witness the remorseless mechanism that is the engine of historical tragedy: an abattoir, an endless parade of death played out across the rich garden of the kingdom, ultimately reducing it to the final desert of ash, an endless winter of discontent.

In Part One, Act Two, a conflation of Henry IV and V, the stage is utterly bare, the only decoration to the action the guitarist Stefan Gregory, who stands by a giant amp, his back to the audience, picking out a growling lyric on his guitar. This act plays out the crisis of royal legitimacy, reminding us that the etymology of the word “royal” is the same as the word “real” (and that the Real was also a currency of the Spanish realm: gold and divine authority, the ultimate realities, were – and still are – closely linked). Henry IV (Robert Menzies), the murderer of Richard II, the anointed king, is haunted by doubt in the legitimacy of his power. He rules a realm riven by rebellion and is shamed by his wastrel son, Hal (Ewen Leslie), a stark contrast to the bellicose young Hotspur (Luke Mullins), who is fomenting rebellion against the monarch.

Henry IV's desired legitimacy only comes after his death, when Hal, now Henry V, forswears his debauch. The state demands sacrifice for its inauguration and legitimation, and Henry expiates the sin of regicide with French blood. Defeated France marries Henry V in the person of Katherine of France (Luke Mullins), who, in one of the more chilling images of the play, rises from the floor as a French corpse covered with blood, and is washed and dressed in wedding clothes before being offered to Henry V.

This foreshadows the mechanical violence of Part Two, Act One, which follows the conflicts between the houses of York and Lancaster, symbolised by the white rose and the red. This slaughter takes place on a ground of flowers, a garden that becomes a battlefield. Each character plucks out their assigned colour in the legendary scene in the garden, when the nobles chose the red rose or the white to indicate their loyalties. But the colours are given a darker meaning: they are echoed in the blood spat into the face of actors, to signify murder, and the flour thrown over their bodies as corpse pallor. The flour hangs in the light like the phosphorous bombs hung over Gaza at Christmas time.

The Players

A hundred years, five kings. Outside the Globe Theatre, a sign read Totus mundus agit histrionem: All the world’s a stage. It’s a sentiment as ancient as Petronius, who is credited with its invention, and it was a commonplace of the Elizabethan age, when theatre was considered the mirror of the times. No one worked this metaphor with more variety, wit and point than Shakespeare.

This metaphor is woven through the entire production, but there are telling moments when it steps into the foreground. One is in Richard III, when Richard is plagued by nightmares before the Battle of Bosworth Field, assailed in his dreams by all those he has murdered. Each ghost curses Richard – Pamela Rabe in bloodied t-shirt and black trousers, her hair curtaining her face like an evil Joey Ramone – and blesses his enemy, Richmond (Luke Mullins). And then they all gather front stage, as actors do when the show is finished, and bow. And we see that the stage is Richard’s mind, a macabre playground where at first he is king of the castle, the playground bully and liar murdering his way to the top of the class with macabre glee. When the ghosts bow to us, heedless of death since the worst has already happened to them, Richard discovers that he is no longer playing history. Now, like all his forbears, all those kings who thought they were the authors of their own action, Richard finds that he is merely history’s plaything, after all. The role is playing him.

In this moment and others like it, we are also made pricklingly aware that Richard is an actor, a player who is, moreover, a woman, Pamela Rabe, who after the play is over will walk off the stage, strip off her costume and take a shower. This double consciousness of performance is a particularly Shakespearean trope, and Andrews has exploited it to the hilt in The War of the Roses. The ambiguity of the Player King – the king whose pomp is all performance, the actor whose performance is all kingliness, each reflecting the perilous illusions and realities of the other – is a constant motif through the History Plays and the tragedies, and its double meaning expands still further in this production in the ash-strewn playground of Richard III.

The metaphor generates its power from the compelling reality of the performances: if we did not believe in the cruel grace of Richard II, if we were sceptical of the grief opened on the whetstone of Bolingbroke's ambition, if the lewdness of Hal and Falstaff played false or Anne’s tragic death were laughable instead of pathetic and sad, then the mundane reality beneath the playing would have no power to enrich our watching, and to unite our quotidian and imaginative worlds into a single complex reality.

What does it mean to “believe” a performance? This production gives plenty of occasions to consider this question: the acting is superlative, as good as you will see anywhere, with performances of breadth and disturbing depths, with nuance and skill and delicacy and the kind of passion that hooks the heart on barbed wire. To "believe" an actor means, I think, to become more conscious, to open the imagination to the full scope of emotional possibility. It means to understand better the meaning of our own humanity. It is not always comfortable.

This is the final production of the STC’s Actors Company, the beautiful dream of a permanent ensemble that foundered on the Scylla and Charybdis of Sydney public opinion and uneven programming. To my mind miraculously, the Actors Company produced some unforgettable work along the way. And it seems to me that if it took three years to make this show, and The War of the Roses were all that the Actors Company produced, it was well worth the bother. After all, there are companies in Europe – much lauded by critics here who have been very quick to claim that the Actors Company was a waste of resources – who have done no more than work on a single production for three years.

Every time I’ve seen the Actors Company, I’ve been impressed by the fluidity of its performance, the depth of the ensemble's dynamic on stage. The War of the Roses takes this several steps further, with Andrews’ direction springing off those relationships to generate the terrifying alienation that is the harsh lesson of this production. Above all else, one is watching a practised group at work, by now polished by three years’ daily intimacy. The stage glows with the genius of the ensemble, which generates a lucidity of performance that you simply cannot attain in the job-to-job schedule of normal acting work.

A month into the season, I didn’t see a single weak actor, and the two guest actors – Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies – sit brilliantly within the cast. And this show features individual performances that are simply remarkable, portrayals that deserve to be lauded and remembered years hence as moments when greatness graced our stage.

Images that remain with me: Cate Blanchett as Richard II, luminous and sly, the image of arrogant wit and grace, heartless and heartbreaking, walking over broken glass to the crown; Robert Menzies as Bolingbroke, Henry IV, driven by anger, grief, regret and bitterness, surrounded by his likenesses in a macabre dance that stirred real horror; Ewen Leslie as Henry V, a revelatory performance, charismatically sexual, violent, his body drenched with honey and oil and blood in a diabolical anointing of royalty; John Gaden, brilliant and desolately moving as John of Gaunt and Edmund Duke of York, wickedly knowing and irrepressibly lustful as Falstaff; Marta Dusseldorf, terrifying in her hatred and ambition as Margaret of Anjou, teaching Queen Elizabeth (Amber McMahon) how to curse; Eden Falk, fumblingly innocent and somehow frightening as the child king Henry VI; Pamela Rabe, wickedly juvenile, blackly witty, clumsy, terrifyingly amoral and charismatic as Richard III. But none of these individual moments would be possible without the context around them.

And now, having reached this pitch of real greatness, the Actors Company is to end, to be replaced by a humbler workshop version of fresh faces that, according to the 2009 program, will be mainly working behind the scenes, “refining new work in the rehearsal room”. No doubt it is a sensible decision, given the controversy that has surrounded the Actors Company; perhaps Sydney will heave a huge sigh, to be relieved of such difficult and expensive beauty. But I can't help wishing that Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton had held their nerve and persisted in the grand folly of the Actors Company. Having seen the brilliant work that is The War of the Roses, dropping the company that made it seems like nothing so much as a terrible failure of imagination.

The War of the Roses photos: Tania Kelley.
The War of the Roses Part 1 and Part 2, by William Shakespeare, adapted by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews. Directed by Benedict Andrews, designed by Robert Cousins, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music and sound design by Max Lyandvert, musician Stefan Gregory. Performed by Narek Armaganian, Cate Blanchett, Brandon Burke, Peter Carroll, Marta Dusseldorp, Eden Falk, Holly Fraser, John Gaden, Louis Hunter, Michael Kilbane, Ewen Leslie, Steve Le Marquand, Hayley McElhinney, Amber McMahon, Robert Menzies, Luke Mullins, Pamela Rabe, Emily Russell, Billy Shaw-Voysey and Leo Shaw Voysey. Sydney Theatre Company @ Sydney Theatre, season closed. Perth Festival, Her Majesty's Theatre, February 27 - March 8.


st genesius said...

A wonderful analysis of not just this production, but, as you say, the crowning achievement of the Actor's Company and indeed the previous artistic director's vision and commitment. And a failure of nerve indeed, and a great loss.

Geoffrey said...

... and without wishing to appear like a hapless sycophant, this is possibly the best review of any piece of theatre I have ever read.

Thank you for taking the time Alison, to write so beautifully about this production.

The Perf said...

As a performance student, I found the simplicity of this production incredibly rewarding. What you articulated as Andrews pinpointying for each of the four acts "a single informing (and utterly transparent) theatrical metaphor." was for me a glorious and invigorating re afirmation of why I decided to throw my life away in this industry.

Thanks for getting this review together so quickly. I could easily have read a another ten thousand words of it. There was certainly enough material to write about.

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks, all. (Can you be a bit more to the point, Geoffrey?) It's great to know at least three people read it to the end...:) The truth is, of course, you can't write like this unless you have something to write about. And The War of the Roses was certainly, and marvellously, something.

And absolutely, The Perf: I spent the weekend thinking that 3000 or so words barely scrapes the surface of what is in this production. (Had I but world enough and time...) Over to you!

Anonymous said...

The makers of sparkly confetti will be the ones to really mourn the demise of the Actor's Company

Neil in Sydney said...

The trouble is they couldn't afford to have such an expensive bunch in mothballs for months on end, they seemed to just do shows back to back, and the quality of work suffered. If you only saw Sarsaparilla or Lost Echo or maybe The Serpent's Teeth you'd think it was an inspired idea...but those of us who see more or less everything had The Art of War and Bourgeois Gentleman and Mother Courage and Midsummer Night's Dream and Vienna Woods and Gallipoli too...and you realised two things; a. talented as they are, the actors are only as good as their director, and b. you can get tired of even fine performers. I work in the industry, so it's my job, but my partner stopped seeing their shows this year because he was 'sick of them'.

So as good as it was for the highs, I think the STC paid for it. I know the subscribers turned off in large numbers.

The strange thing was that although it was touted as an actors company, in the end, at its best it felt like a director's company...

And highlight of Roses for me: the King and his lords on their knees slouching towards the Holy Land at the end of the first Act.

Thank-you Alison, I wish you were in Sydney more often, we need people like you desperately up here.

william zappa said...

Wow Allison, a great review. You've made me re-think my response to it. Not that my response was negative, just not appreciating some finer points.

Yes, there is a wealth of talent in that company and when given good material (and direction) they are fantastic. But I found myself feeling very frustrated so early in the piece that it took a long time to recover.

The opening image/metaphor was magnificent for about five minutes. Then I just found it so hard to hear the words. I was sitting way up the back upstairs, and although I could HEAR everything that was said, (radio mics) WHAT was said and why people were saying it just kept getting lost. Sure I was pulled in many times by magnificent performances and text, but all too often I just kept wanting the gold to stop falling so I could simply experience the actors and the words. We certainly got more of that later, and what a relief.

Then, I wonder too, how important it was to have one of the actors standing stock still in the same place for an hour and twenty minutes? That just strikes me as a little cruel and not really artistically justified. (And I speak as someone who loves extremes)

I mention these because for me, they made 'part one' very inconsistent and a little frustrating. There were many moments of theatrical brilliance as your wonderful review notes and places within the greater context and metaphor. Thank you.

I would like to agree with Neil about the image of the king and his followers on their knees. Magnificent. I also loved too, ( I thought it was a stroke of genius), having the son and father in the battle scenes in Henry VI done that way, each one embracing the other and being the killed and then the killer.

Cheers. WZ

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Neil, William: Yep, you're both right: I should have mentioned Menzies on his knees walking (wading?) to Jerusalem with those screaming vocals and guitars. That was plain amazing. Not to mention the whole of Menzies' performance, which took him places I hadn't seen in his work before.

I think this was a cruel production in many ways. I felt an anxiety for the actors' wellbeing through Richard III that I seldom feel in the theatre - there was Eden Falk with his t-shirt over his face, slowly being covered in ash for more than an hour, and when Cate Blanchett hanged herself from the swing my heart was in my mouth. I took that as part of a greater unease that resonated through the whole event.

Myself, I thought the golden confetti was much more than a tricksy effect (but said why I thought so above, so won't repeat myself). I suspect the not being able to "hear" the language in Richard II comes from its shifting to soliloquy, rather than the actual staging: that shift made me, forced me, to listen hard, and gave me some extraordinary moments. I don't doubt that it's a hard ask, and not everyone is going to be prepared to go there.

And quite right, Neil. I missed the Actors Company duds (though I heard about them from Reliable Sources), and there's no doubt there were real problems in the programming and artistic vision. The question of expense is all relative, of course. There are places on the planet where no one would blink at the prospect of a big company working for months to create a brilliant work, and where people understand it takes years of hard work to make anything of real quality. But here, yes, as always, an impossible ask: in order to justify their existence, the actors had to be worked to death.

actor101 said...

Thanks for your review, Alison. I am so glad to have been able to watch The War of the Roses. Definitely some of the most exciting theatre that I've seen recently.

I agree with some of the comments written here about not being able to 'hear' at the beginning of the production- though I attributed that not so much to the falling gold (amazing!) but rather to the attack that some of the actors had on the language. Simple shakespearean devices, and the beautiful language structure was sometimes overrided by a wash of anger. Not with all actors of course, and each of them had interesting moments. I also saw the shows on preview nights so I'm sure that the actors' grasp and inhabitation of the language has improved since then.

So many amazing images and moments in the production- some that didn't resonate so well with me, as well. But there were so many beautiful performances- many of whom you have mentioned here. Someone who I feel has missed out on well-deserved praise in the reviews is Luke Mullins. Beautiful physicality, and he spoke the language with such delicacy and nuance.

As you said, Alison, whenever I think about this production or talk about it with someone, one thought always sparks off many more. This show will stay with me for a long time.

Anonymous said...

What an astonishing review. For those who were unable to catch this master-work, Allison, with your review they can glimpse into the greatness we observed.

Though one thing I do disagree, I think it showed what great and unwavering nerve Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton possess; to disband a team of fine actors. That act takes more courage than some can muster. These two have showed that they are keepers of their word and doing just that.

The STC out with the old and in with the new and fresh.
I applaud this decision and gladly await the opportunity to see different actors that possess the same, fine acting skills.

t sometimes became quite mundane to see the same group time and time again. I don't want to become comfortable with a performance or comfortable with certain performers and with this group after so many shows, I found the excitement waning which was truly unfortunate.

Alison Croggon said...

Many thanks for all the comments. One thing that has struck me in conversations I've had about this show (with those who admired this work) is that everyone has their favourite actor, their favourite moment and, like turning a crystal, each opens new facets on the production. It was a huge show, in so many ways.

Anon, I do think that acquiescing to a cross public and a bunch of critics demanding the removal of the Actors Company is not exactly about "nerve" - pragmatic good sense, perhaps... But how much is this an Australian story, cutting an ambitious project off at the knees out of impatience and boredom, and saying that its achievements are, well, old now... I'm not blaming Blanchett and Upton: it's an understandable decision, given what surveys revealed about what the public thought of the AC. And I still think that means that Sydney didn't realise what a jewel it had. It may have been tarnished at times, it may have had moments when it was less than it should have been, but look what it came up with when things worked! And it's hard to see how that will happen again, ever.

I am always sad to see ambition and achievement cut short, instead of being picked up and pushed further towards its potential. It's a disease in our arts culture, a kind of mean topiary, trimming us all small.... Probably ok to think big if you're a sportsperson, but if you're an artist, the secateurs are waiting in the wings...

maybrit said...

Alison, I'm on my knees begging you to come and work in Sydney! I can't thank you enough for your perspicacious review of War of the Roses. You reflected all my own thoughts, but I have not been able to express them in such eloquent words. You opened up new thoughts as well, particularly about Benedict and Tom's astoundingly clever adaptation. Thank you!!! May-Brit

Chris Boyd said...

I reckon Nick Schlieper's lighting (on its own) warrants 3000 words from the "down, down, I come like glistering Phaëton" first vision to the very end.

Even where lines were cut, Schlieper's cues and semiotic clues remained. [The only one I can remember just now is: "Shine out fair sun till I have bought a glass/That I might see my shadow as I pass" from RIII.] I found it oddly comforting cos some of my favourite lines didn't make the cut.

BTW, in eight hours I don't think I saw a single light source.

Reminds me that Schlieper was credited as co-designer? or design collaborator? or similar for his work on the last Adelaide Ring Cycle. (Quite deservedly.)

Like that Ring Cycle, War of the Roses stays in the memory and seems to increase in boldness and stature. (But then so do all of Benedict's productions.)

I have to say that at half time, I could have walked away. I thought the conception was deeply flawed. It seemed to reduce the plays to mere plot. Too much bone was filleted, dramaturgically speaking! Why not do all of the plays? (Or do them all as well as Richard III?) (So, yes, I was very glad I came back... Mad Margaret's curses an' all. Mmmm!)

I didn't see all of the English Shakespeare Company's cycle (and thank-you for reinforcing what I was beginning to believe was a false memory!! They did eight plays in seven days... I'm guessing they must have combined the three Henry VI plays and performed them in two chunks) but I do remember them as all being worth seeing, even the appalling Henry V!! (It was created in post Falklands Britain and commented rather darkly on the jingoism of the time.)

The only other time I've seen Richard II performed (apart from ESC & now STC)... I was in it! LOL. (Yeah, yeah, wondrous strange!)

Thanks Alison, yet again, for taking the time to write this.

Alison Croggon said...

May-Brit, I really wouldn't mind being a frequent flyer. I love visiting Sydney. It all depends on time and money &c, things usually in short supply around here but willingly spent all the same.

And Chris, you won't get any argument from me that Nick Schlieper is a genius with light. It's kind of indicative of the production's richness that I didn't mention him - or Robert Cousins! - or Max Lyandvert - ! because you're right, you really could spend a lot of words just talking about the design.

Ben C said...

Not a whinge, but any chance of the MTC doing something even remotely this ambitious down here...?

Alison Croggon said...

Is it within the scope of your imagination? No? Well then...

Joseph said...

I thought it was deadly theatre. I was bored senseless, although Shakespeare is my favourite writer.

Gay sex between Falstaff and Prince Hal? Oh puhleese! The director needs to read the script.
If Shakespeare had wanted to suggest that he would have, as he did in other plays.

Whoever said that an Oscar is no qualification for running a theatre company was right.

james said...

Hi Alison - awesome review. I tried, but YOU found the words! I think Keith Gallasch in RealTime will be out today (or soon) - I think he has a big response coming also....

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks James - I'll look out for Keith's piece. See you in Tassie!

Jarrett said...

It was great to read this review and all the comments. Your review -- lacking, as far as I could tell, a single criticism -- captured the courage and vigor of the experiment, and also placed it in a context that I (a PhD in theatre but new to Australia) could not have known. And then the comments, like footnotes, fill in the valid critiques that must be said, yet at the end I feel good about the post+comments as a composition, focused on the courage and leadership that this production required.

My own experience of the production was very much about the dance with the familiar text. Yes, if you didn't know Richard II well, you were likely to feel frustrated an hour in, as the golden rain piled up but nobody moved. I found my mind wandering to other productions of R2 that I'd seen -- all the way back to Derek Jacobi for the BBC in the 1970s -- as though the absence of movement left a hole that I had to supplement from other sources.

The Henry IV segment -- not yet much discussed here -- seemed the starkest idea: Strip the play down to its core triangle -- King, Hal, Falstaff -- and play it as though it were Pinter. It didn't really work for Falstaff, but the actor gave such an effort that I decided this was a problem with the concept: Without his retinue, Falstaff doesn't really exist. But the Hal-Henry scenes were some of the most powerful and naked acting I've seen in ages, and those scenes come back to me when I try to summon a core impression of the whole production. I think that's a tribute to the whole Actors Company concept, that finally, even in such a directed and conceptual production, it finally comes down to the actors, and they delivered.

But at the end of that incredible hour, the audience audibly twtiching to be released, did we really need Henry V at all? That such a rushed and trivialised rendering should engender such acclaim as I've read here suggests an awful thought that I've harbored ever since Branagh's 1982 film: Henry V is just not a very interesting play, and if there is ever a play whose ideology deserves the ashheap of history (and whose poetics and theatrics are just not up to the task of subverting its ideology) it's this one.

Henry VI is the one part of this series that demands a strong concept, but it did drag over time, once we we grew used to how the red fluid and flour were used. The Brechtian scene-titles were indispensible, which itself speaks to the challenge of the material. Again, great acting carried it, especially Eden Falk's beautiful Henry VI and then Pamela Rabe -- though to be fair to the other actors, these are the only characters in those plays that emerge vividly from the early text.

Richard III was probably the most conceptually and technically faultless of the four acts. But again it came down to acting. If anything, the children -- fine as they were -- seemed to throw the adults into relief, to make the company of adults, the Actors Company, more visible as a ensemble. I agree, this was a great production for the company to deliver as its last.

So yes, thanks for this great review, and for the great conversation here.

Cheers, Jarrett

margaret d said...

This review and the comments it has elicited, the profound thoughts about the meaning of theatre itself, are probably the best testament to the importance of this actors' company. For as you so rightly point out Alison, twelve actors meeting for the first time and trying to put this on a few weeks later would never have achieved the results we saw, the apogee of three years of careful collaboration. Now it is gone. To borrow James Waites' nicknames, let's hope Glitter and Fluffy haven't smashed all their Christmas gifts with nothing to replace them.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear dear dear...what an abomination. Benedict what hast thou done! Assholes do vex Meee ! Get thyself hither and touch thyself anon thou canker for twas a wank most foul lo these many hours passed. This was pretentious theatre at it's was reminded of naughty Boy Reinhardt who also revelled in disempowering actors, often utilising them as mere props to serve his fetish for lovely visuals. The play's the thing Ben and apart from a few diehard wannabees, your production has done nothing to further the appeal or the coffers of the STC. GP be warned! Upstairs in E row, we caught naught of the plot for the first 45 MINUTES or so unaided as we were by your staging of a virtual voice class exercise under an endless golden shower !!?? Poor bloody actors ! They copped fiddly bits in their eyes ears and gobs for 45 frigging minutes! Johnny Gaden went down, then popped back up again. Why? I don't know...he's on third and I don't give a damn! Kate twirled her foot this way and that and us poor bastards in the audience wondered if we were at a play or some sort of soporific poetry reading designed to turn us off the Bard forever. Shame on you Benny go and deconstruct your bathroom if you must but think dynamic if you wish to serve the drama. Actors company you are forgiven for he knows not what he does and you, yea verily e'en the great Cate it seems, are but pawns in this Bore of The Roses.

David said...

A very late response to this superb piece of writing, Alison. The RSC here in the UK produced a mighty cycle, direcetd by Michael Boyd, of the full eight plays last spring(which I devoured - or which devoured me - in two four-play chunks). Odd how many cross-over points there were with what you describe here: a Richard II who was in love with his own ritualised self (later showered not with gold but sand, as if an hourglass of mortality). A Richard III who is utterly without illusion, and the only person on stage uninterested with the build-up of grudge and vengeance that produced him (both Richards were played by the same brilliant, unglamorous actor, Jonathan Slinger). History unrolling as dream, or nightmare. The sense of ensemble and the joy of immersion in a dedicated company of talented actors.

The question you raise about the relevance of watching medieval power struggles and a highly tendentious version of history occured to me, and was then immediately forgotten. The plays are unexpectedly acute about power - both its brutal acquisition, and the ceremony and surveillance with which it shores itself up. In the west, it's often easy to ignore the pulse of history, but as ceaseless conflicts (civil and international) remind us, that is an illusion few can permit themselves.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, you are damn right out the Bore of the Roses.