Tag Archives: Richard III

Play of Thrones

HENRY VI

Festival Theatre, Malvern, Saturday 3rd August, 2013

The Globe Theatre is touring the three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI around the country, giving some performances at the sites of actual battlefields at which actual battles took place.  It’s a neat idea but I opted to see the trilogy surrounded by walls and a roof, such is my faith in the English weather.

Two platforms tower on either side of a bench with a tall backcloth.  This is the simple but effective set on which the drama unfolds, and while you shouldn’t turn to Shakespeare’s histories for historical accuracy, they are a masterclass in the dramatising of seemingly unstageable events, such as the conflict between the rival houses of York and Lancaster.  Shakespeare distils it down to the choosing of a red or white rose for characters to declare their allegiances.  Two men fight in trial by combat, a synecdoche for the war as a whole.

First up is Harry The Sixth which not only introduces the main characters but also establishes the performance style.  There is a lot of drumming.  Varied beats add ceremony, pomp, tension or a militaristic air to scenes, along with other percussive noises to create mood (the cast bash their weapons off the metal set to suggest the clamour of war; a violin bow drawn across a cymbal’s edge creates an eerie atmosphere).  Slow motion is used for some of the fighting, and an arrow carried across the stage to land in a character’s eye, but there is also some real-time sword play that is vigorously choreographed.

It begins with the funeral of popular king Henry V “too famous to live long” and a tough act to follow.  With his successor still young and naive, the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester are at odds.  Meanwhile, the Duke of York believes he is the rightful successor to the throne.  Young King Henry must establish himself in France through marriage to Margaret… And immediately we are thrust into a world of intrigue and betrayal on the grand scale and it struck me how influential Shakespeare’s plays (this trilogy in particular) has been on George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones… This is the one with Joan of Arc.  Played as a tomboy figure by Beatriz Romilly, this Joan sounds like she’s from somewhere north of Winterfell (Ye knaw nuthin, Jon Snaw) Joan is arrested for consorting with spirits and taken off to be burned at the stake.  There is a lot of characters, a lot of names to take in but the costumes help tremendously – the characters wear medieval frocks, each a different colour, creating a sort of rainbow effect.  Later, they will smear red or white war paint across their faces so we can be clear which side they’re on – a very useful device given that the cast double up and treble up on roles.

There is also a vein of humour running through the plays: some ironic remarks and some very dark quips.  The cast manage the shifts in tone very well and also the inclusion of the audience, even though this audience is indoors and in darkness.

The Houses of York & Lancaster.

The second play brings Margaret to the fore, after her marriage to Henry.  There is enmity between her and the wife of Gloucester.  The latter performs some kind of occult ritual for which she is arrested and banished to the Isle of Man! Gloucester is arrested, wrongly accused of all sorts of crimes, and is murdered before he can come to trial.  Shakespeare gives us an early CSI scene in the Earl of Warwick’s description of Gloucester’s body.  Mike Grady has a powerful death scene as the Bishop of Winchester, confessing his transgressions and necking a bottle of poison.  A rebel alliance, led by Jack Cade (Roger Evans) brings comedy: one man is accused of corrupting “the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school”.  Heads begin to come off and decorate the set.  No character is safe.

The True Tragedy of the Duke of York.

Henry does a deal with York: he will rule quietly but upon his death, the crown will at last go to the Plantagenets.  Of course, Henry’s Mrs is more than dismayed to hear this and will have none of it.  Now clad in leather armour, Margaret is a warrior queen, in a splendid performance by Mary Doherty.  Her arc (not Joan’s) over the trilogy is the most interesting of the lot. The Duke of York is captured and beheaded, leaving it to his sons to fight the self-righteous fight. Brendan O’Hea is a commanding figure as York – his final scene with Doherty’s Margaret is electric – and his turn as the King of France is a scream.

It is a delight to see the character who will become Richard III rising through the ranks, in a delicious performance by Simon Harrison; twisted and limping, he scuttles around the set, fighting and plotting.  The final tableau, a sort of royal family portrait, with Richard holding his brother’s baby son, is chilling.

Through all of this, of course, is weak Henry, powerfully played by Graham Butler, getting across the king’s youth, naivety, piousness, and grief.  Despite the character’s flaws and feebleness, Butler makes sure we like Henry and keeps us engaged throughout.

The entire company goes hell for leather in this respect.  Andrew Sheridan is strong as Warwick; Garry Cooper’s Gloucester and other roles have dignity and authority (although with his beard, long purple robe and staff, Gloucester looks like Prospero wandered in from a different production!) and Joe Jameson is versatile in a range of roles, but really, the whole pack of them merit high praise indeed.

Director Nick Bagnall gives us a trilogy that flies by.  It’s like watching a box set of a TV series and suddenly realising the whole day has gone.  Absorbing, entertaining and inventive, this Henry VI trilogy is a must for Shakespeare and George R R Martin fans alike, indoors or out.

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Graham Butler

 

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Rich and Infamous

RICHARD III
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Monday 16th April, 2012

Director Roxana Silbert follows up last season’s very enjoyable Measure For Measure with a Richard III that also brings the comic aspects of the play to the fore.

As the eponymous monarch, Jonjo O’Neill stalks around the stage on a gammy leg, his posture twisted into a stoop, and clad in some natty black leathers. This Richard is the purest Machiavellian. He doesn’t glower and brood in his private moments, only turning on the charm and the spiel for those he wishes to manipulate. Even alone, he doesn’t stop. In his native Belfast accent, O’Neill treats us to a Richard who has not only kissed but snogged the Blarney Stone. With tongues. This charm works on the other characters, whom he plays like a string section, but also on the audience. You can’t help liking him and admiring his gift of the gab. The man is a callous murderer and makes the most audacious claims and offers. And he gets away with it – up to a point. Shakespeare gave the King a makeover that would flatter his Tudor patrons but he cannot bend history to the point that his most affable villain will ride off into the sunset at the end on the horse he cries out for but never gets. When Richard gives battle in vain, he is struck down by a sword stroke to the body and then, in an almost tender moment, has the life throttled from him. It is like putting an animal to sleep.

The stage and the action are dominated by O’Neill. Other characters don’t get much of a look-in. They come and go as suits his machinations. Few show the liveliness of Richard – but then, I suppose, they’re mostly grieving for the loved ones that he murdered.

I loved Paola Dionisotti’s cursing harridan Margaret, rhythmically stamping her foot as she pronounces doom on all and sundry. Richard’s scene with Siobhan Redmond’s Elizabeth Woodville was the highlight for me. There is amiable support from Joshua Jenkins, especially when he’s playing the murderer but on the whole this black comedy is a largely bloodless affair. I think it could afford to tip the scales more towards Grand Guignol to add an extra frisson to the beheadings and garrottings.

The battle scene begins with a stylised march with the obligatory rallying pep-talk but this breaks out into a fast and frantic skirmish, culminating in an exciting sword fight that got people in the front rows flinching. Roxana Silbert pitches the climax of the play just right.

Richard’s mother (Sandra Duncan) is dressed like Margaret Thatcher. I doubt Maggie would share her qualms though. The elvish-mark’d, abortive rooting hog Thatcher’s policies have spawned and unleashed on the country will not meet the same fate. Pity.

With a virtuoso performance from the excellent Jonjo O’Neill, who keeps on the right side of pantomime , this is a very pleasing production that puts you firmly on the side of Shakespeare’s most likeable villain.