Wars of the Roses ~ theatre notes

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Wars of the Roses

Wars of the Roses by Williams Shakespeare, directed by John Bell, designed by Stephen Curtis. With Joe Manning, John Batchelor, Robert Alexander, Christopher Stollery, Greg Stone, Timothy Walter, Matthew Moore, Richard Piper, Peter Lamb, Darren Gilshenan, Georgia Adamson, Julian Garner, David Davies, John Turnbull and Julia Davis. Bell Shakespeare at the Arts Centre Playhouse until June 4.

Shakespeare's early history plays have preoccupied many an ambitious director. The eight plays make an extraordinary epic drama covering five generations of brutal power struggles. The second tetralogy, Henry VI parts I, II and III and Richard III, dramatises the ruinous civil wars between the houses of Lancaster and York that tore England apart before the ascension of the Tudor dynasty to the throne.

John Bell follows luminaries like Peter Hall, Michael Bogdanov and Adrian Noble in tackling the second tetralogy. And like Hall (Wars of the Roses) and Noble (The Plantagenets), he has elected to adapt the four works into a single play. To be more precise, he has worked the Henry VI trilogy into a play, and then appended as an epilogue the shortest version ever of Richard III, whose Machiavellian ascension to power over a pile of corpses takes the length of a song.

This is a self-consciously irreverent Australian adaptation of works which are, to the marrow of their bone, about Englishness. Why, then, should we be interested in them? Shakespeare's analysis of the tragic, inexorable cycle of power suggests one answer. But rather than delving into the harsh morality of Shakespeare's complex political world, Bell sidesteps the question and plumps for cheap populism.

Perhaps the most obvious symptom of this is the Monty Python accents affected by the French, who are presented as a bunch of fops. At any moment you expect them to start hurling dung at the Eengleesh. Worse, it makes it hard to believe that the French are capable of mounting any defence against the English, let alone winning any battles. Worst of all, when Joan of Arc (Georgia Adamson, mercifully free of the foppishness) is captured, Bell makes an allusion to the Abu Ghraib torture scandal by having her brought on in a shopping trolley, her head in a black bag, and pushed around while soldiers take photos of the abuse.

This snatch at contemporary events is gratuitously shallow: are we now supposed to equate France with occupied Iraq? And if so, why are we caricaturing the enemy? Or is the whole issue of torture merely the occasion (as I fear) for a jokey aside? The same kind of metaphorical confusion happens when Jack Cade (Christopher Stollery) quotes a line by George W. Bush ("Watch this drive!") So the most powerful leader in the Western world, the scion of a wealthy oil dynasty, is actually like a rebellious and powerless peasant?

Aside from a scene showing Joan's dealings with demons and witchcraft (absent from this version), Shakespeare is fairly even-handed in his portrayals of the French and the English, with both armies demonising each other. Dehumanising the enemy is one of the time-honoured (or dishonoured) staples of warfare, and Shakespeare clearly demonstrates its mechanisms. By eliciting easy laughs at the expense of the French, Bell neatly fillets out this moral equivalence, and with it a great deal of tragic power.

These merry quips are among aspects of the production that are supposed to appeal to the young. They certainly got laughs from the not-very-young audience, making me reflect on Howard Barker's now disavowed dictum that laughter in the theatre is a kind of death. But mainly I wondered whether obscuring Shakespeare's seriousness and emotional potency wasn't, in fact, cheating young people of a potentially astounding experience.

Certainly the teenagers I took, media sophisticates that they are, were rolling their eyes at the contemporary references ("what's with the Bush thing?") They also knew it didn't make sense. And such panderings dilute any moments of genuine audacity - Darren Gilshenan, for example, singing the famous opening lines to Richard III as a sardonically dark rock song.

Richard Curtis' design sets the play in a sports stadium, with echoes of the Colosseum, and many of the soldierly costumes are versions of athletic body armour. The motley costumes strike a balance between being brashly contemporary and theatrically timeless, and the harsh, flat lighting accentuates the unrelenting brutality of the action. For the most part the battle scenes, staged as aggressive dance or with elements from Asian fight films, are exciting and theatrical.

The most powerful moments revolve around the performances of Richard Piper as Warwick and Greg Stone as the Duke of York. They imbue their roles with a masculinity that wavers between swagger and amoral ruthlessness, complicated by epiphanies of real, tragic feeling: half gangsters, half noblemen. Piper plays Warwick, the Duke of York's chief henchman, as a bluff mercenary, pragmatic and pitiless in pursuit of his goals, but also unwaveringly loyal to York and touchy about his honour.

Stone's performance is remarkable: the scene on the molehill when the captured Duke of York is mocked by Margaret of Anjou, who throws him a handkerchief stained with the blood of his dead son, is one of the few times when the play truly reaches Shakespearean heights. York's railing against Margaret, and the unbearable poignancy of his grief, is a heart rending evocation of the tragedy and bloodiness of war.

They are surrounded by generally strong performances, notably from John Batchelor, Christopher Stollery, Georgia Adamson and Peter Lamb, but at times the characterisations seemed a little one dimensional. The pious, unworldly Henry IV is an ambiguous figure, at once pitiable, morally admirable and contemptibly irresponsible. He is played somewhat wanly by Joe Manning, who mostly succeeds in seeming bewildered. There are more subtleties and strengths to this role than pathos; an inescapable bitterness at his destiny, for example, and the irony that knows the true worth of the crown for which so many others are prepared to murder.

Margaret of Anjou is played by Blazey Best as a manipulative sex bomb, an interpretation that, like her outrageous accent, obscures her warrior ruthlessness. Darren Gilshenan plays Richard of Gloucester, York's hunchbacked son (soon to be Richard III) as a pastiche of Laurence Olivier and Anthony Sher's spidery performances. It works - kind of - but as caricature rather than characterisation.

These interpretations strike me as failures of direction rather than performance, a marred understanding of the plays which often mistakes novelty for originality and crassness for crude vitality. It's a shame, because in its best moments, Wars of the Roses has the lineaments of a tantalisingly excellent production.

Bell Shakespeare

1 comment:

Michael Peverett said...

It doesn't sound much good, though I don't really understand from your description why the Abu Ghraib parallel fails so badly - I would have thought it could be pertinent and powerful.

I've written about the Henry VI tetralogy here, which focusses on Part III, which is the best of them I think. I'd love to see someone reverse the trend and produce it in its own right as a full-length individual drama. Running the highlights together into a shorter timeslot always seems to drain out the significance of the action and you just end up with the same unchallenging generalities about the futility of civil war, etc.