“ Spring 2008 season in Stratford-upon-Avon, London. Come see Shakespeare's complete History Cycle performed by one ensemble company of actors. „
The Royal Shakespeare Company is performing all eight of Shakespeare's sequential history plays at the moment. They're on at the Roundhouse in Camden, North London (it's right next to Chalk Farm tube station, on the Northern Line, and Camden is well-served by buses and Overground trains). It's actually ending in late May, and might even be sold out (The RSC's website suggests there may be tickets available for some performances; the Roundhouse's website suggests there aren't). However, if you possibly can you should definitely see these (or at least some of them). They really are excellent.
The eight plays are Richard II, Henry IV parts one and two, Henry V, Henry VI parts one, two and three, and Richard III. I'm not going to describe the plots in any detail as they cover 100 years of English history, and such things as the Battle of Agincourt and the Wars of the Roses should be well-known enough. What happens in Richard II reverberates throughout the rest of the plays as England descends into civil war and chaos.
The plays follow on neatly from one another, but it's very rare for them to be performed back-to-back with the same ensemble cast and director. Last time the RSC did the histories, they had different casts for the two halves. The main problem is the Henry VI plays. The others are revived often, as they offer great showcase roles for leading men. But the Henry VI plays aren't very good. For all that Shakespeare became, he was pretty bad when he started out, and the Henry VI plays are some of his first. But if there's one thing the RSC does well, it's reclaiming unfashionable plays and making them work in new ways.
The Roundhouse, as you might imagine, is a large, round building. It was a railway turning shed in Victorian times. There's a stage and auditorium in it - although it's a large space, the stage isn't too big and the atmosphere is surprisingly intimate. The stage juts out into the audience, with seats on three sides of it. A metal tower at the back is the only stage furniture. Actors enter through the audience and use the multi-level auditorium to good effect. The height of the space is impressive, and is used as fully as it can be, with a lot of entertaining business involving ropes, trapezes, descending platforms and - memorably - a harpsichord that lowers from the ceiling with a man calmly playing it.
The ensemble cast are, without exception, excellent (one actor goes way over the top, but that kind of fits). Most of them get at least one fairly major part, and they often play similar parts in different plays, allowing the director to make parallels that would otherwise be impossible (so Jonathan Slinger plays both tyrant kings named Richard, Clive Wood plays the usurper Bolingbroke in Richard II and then the usurper York in Henry VI, etc). Slinger is a real revelation, as is Katy Stephens as evil Queen Margaret. But there are too many great performances here to list everyone.
The music is superb - minimalist and very much a part of the action, as important lines and events are underlined by chimes or drum beats. This approach works best with the rather basic Henry VI plays, but the haunting atmosphere the music helps create permeates all but one of the plays. The costumes are vaguely old fashioned without fitting any one period and the sword fights are energetic. The direction is perfect throughout - the coherent and immersive mood these productions create, especially if you see several of them in a short space of time, is like nothing I've seen before.
One thing I was happy about was the use of excessive stage blood - too often Shakespeare productions don't bother with it. Here's it's ladled on with zeal. There's no liver ripping this time round (I fondly remember that from last time I saw Henry VI), but it still finds time to pluck out eyeballs, wave severed arms about and, um, stick a knife up Joan of Arc's intimate bits.
I've not seen the two Henry IV plays yet, but if I wait until I have then there really will be no point in posting this review. They feature the Histories' one star performer, David Warner as Falstaff (he made his name in the 60s playing Henry VI). They've had very good reviews. The other plays, very briefly: Richard II is excellent (a surprise, as I don't like usually like it at all). They even get the awkward Aumerle stuff in the second half to work and bring out humour where I hadn't thought to find any. Henry V doesn't lend itself as well to the more sinister aspects of the staging, but there's a nice sense of spectacle about it and the French - on trapezes, for the most part - are hilarious.
Henry VI part one is very episodic. While the staging is entertaining, the play drags a bit in the second half (this is Shakespeare's fault). The school party in the audience was certainly shocked by the gore, though. Part two is exceptional - possibly the single best Shakespeare production I've ever seen. The second half is an unrelenting sequence of brilliantly silly violence, and because the play isn't very good, they really go to town on the staging. There's a genuinely creepy witchcraft scene, some fabulous vengeful spectres (not in the text, but this is a play that is greatly improved by the minor rewrites done here), and an incredible, anarchic peasants' revolt sequence, one of the best things I've ever seen.
Part three is a more focused and nastier play as the Wars of the Roses play out and the sinister hunchback Richard of Gloucester comes to the fore. Unfortunately, and bafflingly, they revert to modern dress for the last play, Richard III. As a standalone it would be pretty good, but it completely breaks the spell cast by the other plays and seems slightly desperate, a last-minute and unnecessary attempt to try and hammer home that the plays are 'relevant'. Still, Jonathan Slinger's performance as Richard makes it worth seeing.
The one frustrating, incomprehensible thing is that it has only transferred to London for two months. Each play is getting about six performances, and that's the end of it. This is ridiculous - this is, as the posters proclaim, a major theatre event. It's brought some of the more awkward plays in Shakespeare's repertory to life in brilliant, vivid ways. This should be on for at least six months. Great as it is, one can't help but be annoyed that so few people will get to see it.
As I've said, if you get a chance - try and get returns, or anything - it is totally worth it. Prices range from £10 to £30ish, but all the seats offer a great view (the nature of the staging means that no one can see everything that happens). I've paid £120 to see the lot, and am sad that I've almost finished with them now. If you're in a position to pick and choose (which is sadly unlikely), go for Richard II or Henry VI two or three. If you can somehow get all of them in, you will never regret it - the more you see, the better they get.
I don't like using the word 'magnificent' - it's too much the kind of thing you see on the blurbs of really boring novels. But the RSC's Histories is magnificent - I go to the theatre all the damn time, and I really don't think I've seen anything better. This is Shakespeare as he should be done - exciting, funny, daring and great.