With a tour of nine theatres before finishing at the company’s home at Dean Clough, Halifax, Northern Broadsides might seem to be moving towards theatrical conformity: no cattle markets or spinning sheds this time for a company which has built a reputation on recycled spaces and industrial props as much as on the Northern-accented directness of its Shakespeare performance.
The compensations, however, are vast. In association with West Yorkshire Playhouse, Broadsides field a company of 21 (many doubling to great effect as musicians) to bring Shakespeare’s second tetralogy of histories to startling life over some seven hours on stage. Barrie Rutter’s adaptation cuts the three parts of Henry VI to two fairly short plays.
Beginning with the funeral of Henry V, these two plays (re-named Henry VI and Edward IV) chart the hapless reign of Henry VI through the unsuccessful end to the French wars, Jack Cade’s rebellion and the growing Yorkist challenge and end with Edward IV’s final triumph. Richard IIIthen completes the sequence in a more conventional text, if hardly a conventional performance.
The new text, inevitably, is light on the development of minor characters: even with a hefty cull of Shakespeare’s cast-list, there is plenty of serious doubling so that Tim Barker, for instance, seems to be playing a sort of generic lord – and playing him very well! What text and production do superbly, however, is point up the inevitability of conflict. Whether by juxtaposition of scenes or a blank expression following some protestation of amity, it is evident that the natural order involves conflict between England and France, between Church and State and between the great families of England. All are opportunists, except for the holy fool King Henry and the upright Protector Gloucester, given a sonorous dignity by Dicken Ashworth.
Rutter’s production, on a largely bare stage with an adaptable jail/town walls/balcony structure, begins in typical Broadsides fashion, with Henry V’s coffin on a porter’s trolley and an explosion of music (by Conrad Nelson). Chorales and a saxophone-wielding messenger give way to Joan of Arc (a vital performance by Maeve Larkin) using her French shepherds’ dance to defeat the clumsy kettle drums of Lord Talbot. These highly emblematic early scenes have the feel of a morality play.
It’s mildly disappointing that this innovative style is less in evidence as the plays proceed, but to compensate the main characters become more three-dimensional: the growing ambition of Rutter’s blustery York, excellent in the pathos of the farewell to Rutland, Helen Sheals’ Queen Margaret, developing from simple mischief and malice, and – best of all – Andrew Whitehead whose supremely ineffectual King, initially very funny, slides seamlessly into the torment of self-knowledge.
And the musical underpinning, when it returns, is as powerful as ever. The stylised battles, fought by percussion (Roger Burnett and Matt Connor lead the drummers), are another Broadsides tradition magnificently in evidence and the explosion of somewhat artificial euphoria at the end of Edward IV owes not a little to Richard Standing being probably the first Shakespearean monarch to perform a jazz bass solo.
Conrad Nelson’s Richard III is consistently riveting, if not consistently convincing. At first compulsively joking to conceal his ambition and frustration, he remains something of a music hall comedian, conspiring with his audience, the outbursts of truth torn from him involuntarily – too many throwaways, maybe, too much wilful eccentricity; but a remarkable performance.
At the end of a richly rewarding three-in-one-day the climax of Richard III, a splendidly dramatic visual sequence culminating in a massive Te Deum, prompted a standing ovation – well deserved for the overall scale and vision of the project, though at the moment all three plays hit dull spots which life on the road may well eliminate.
- Ron Simpson (reviewed at West Yorkshire Playhouse)