Man of the Millennium on the State of the NationDate: 9 April 2001
The RSC makes history this month with its "This England" series. All eight of Shakespeare's histories will be performed chronologically in London, concluding an extraordinary theatrical project. Whatsonstage.com correspondent Rob Hole reports.
Eight of Shakespeare's history plays trace the continuous story of the English monarchy from the deposition and murder of Richard II in 1399 to the death in battle of Richard III in 1485. As well as telling a vivid tale of rebellions and civil wars, of love and hatred, death and retribution, Shakespeare also shares with us his ideas on government and the state of the nation. Little wonder then that the RSC decided to mark the turning of the millennium by staging a major re-interpretation of this challenging cycle of plays, exploring their relevance today.
The complete cycle has now finished at Stratford and the second half of it has been seen in Michigan USA. Now it reaches London and as well as playing in repertory at The Pit, The Barbican Theatre and The Young Vic, there will be two occasions in April when audiences can watch all eight plays in five days. This amounts to 1,413 minutes of Shakespeare - almost 24 hours spent watching 79 actors play 264 roles. Although the cycle, inevitably, has some weaknesses and imperfections - a few tedious minutes or a rare miscasting - these pale into insignificance against its splendours, and the enterprise has to be applauded and strongly recommended to all serious theatregoers.
The original idea was that an actor should play the same character in all the plays, but that the plays would have separate directors and individual styles and would be played in different theatres. Richard II and Henry V are both presented in modern dress, while the two parts of Henry IV, which are sandwiched between them, are in traditional RSC historical period and style. The last four plays - the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III - are played as a unity; medieval only in design, they use the most modern technical devices and theatrical concepts.
Steven Pimlott's production of Richard II gets the cycle off to an electric start which is rarely equalled in the later plays and never bettered. The grim realities of political power are laid bare as the self indulgent young King Richard, born to power, is ruthlessly deposed and murdered by the ambitious political heavyweight who succeeds him as Henry IV. David Troughton's performance as Henry, over three plays, is perhaps the outstanding individual acting achievement of the cycle - something to place alongside the greatest performances you're ever likely to see on stage.
But Troughton (pictured above) is given a good run for his money, as fine acting abounds. Samuel West's effete and vulnerable Richard II, Desmond Barrit's lugubrious Falstaff, William Houston's detached Prince Hal and determined Henry V, Fiona Bell's refreshingly modern Joan of Arc, Clive Wood's moving and dignified Richard of York and Aiden McArdle's playful and repulsive Richard III will all live long in the playgoer's memory. It would be sad if David Oyelowo's Henry VI were to be remembered merely for being the first time a black actor has played an English king for the RSC; he brings to the part a confused vulnerability, dignified simplicity and goodness of heart which few actors, whatever their colour, could match.
Edward Hall's production of Henry V, set in a present day military context, explores the concept of nationality and asks what it means to be British in an age when many people's allegiance is to England, Wales, Scotland or Ireland. The war against France it depicts is far from glorious, but it's the civil war in England - the Wars of the Roses - explored in the Henry VI plays that brings us face to face with the ultimate horror of man's inhumanity to man. In one playing of the complete cycle, the RSC uses over ten pints of stage blood, but it's never spilled gratuitously.
Having exposed the horror of civil war and the necessity of strong government, Shakespeare ended his cycle on an optimistic note. The young Henry Tudor, grandfather of Shakespeare's Queen Elizabeth and founder of the Tudor dynasty, has the final word and looks forward to a period of peace and prosperity.
But that is not the end of the RSC cycle. The body of Richard III is left alone on the stage, and the ghost of Henry VI enters. Richard stands up to face him. Henry, played by a black actor dressed in white, the embodiment of goodness and ineffective government, stares at Richard, played by a white actor dressed in black, the embodiment of evil and realpolitik. The audience recognises both as unsatisfactory rulers and leaves the theatre wondering if goodness and strong government are ultimately incompatible.
Anyone who questioned the choice of Shakespeare as Britain's "man of the millennium" should go to see this wonderful cycle of plays. Shakespeare gives us an acute analysis of the problems of society and government which is as relevant today as when he wrote it. He provides no easy answers, just a disturbing insight into the complexity of human nature - the goodness and evil of human kind.
Key dates this month
What's playing where in London
At the Barbican Theatre -
At the Pit -
At the Young Vic -