The early scenes - in which Edward pursues the virtuous Countess of Salisbury while her husband is away in France - are the most interesting (and the most Shakespearean). There are some fascinating contrasts between a lusty king determined to have his own way and a woman determined to defend her honour. And when the king forces her father Warwick to intercede on his behalf, forcing a sad parent to pimp for his daughter, we realise that, even if not written by Shakespeare, these scenes sprang from the quill of a superb dramatist.
But the play suddenly switches tack and, from then on, seems more like a precursor to the other History plays. Much of the action focuses on Prince Edward. A sort of Hal without the moral delinquency - played well by Jamie Glover, with a public-school earnestness - there's none of Hal's development of character inherent in the text.
Nor is there in the king himself, making the excellent Rintoul almost wasted in the part. Surely Shakespeare would have mused more on the nature of kingship and the mingling of private life and public duty. But Edward spouts nothing meaningful after his opening scenes. The more interesting character is the French monarch, who Michael Thomas invests with a degree of pomposity, arrogance and sardonic humour over his country's invasion. We see how his illusions are shattered and how he emerges at the other end - a voyage of decline that Thomas handles supremely well.
Director Anthony Clark tries his best with the text and ensures that the action doesn't let up. Some of his ideas (like the skull-encrusted abacus) don't work, but he's fighting a losing battle as, ultimately, this is a play that doesn't hang together.
An excellent exercise in propaganda maybe, but I suspect that this will remain a rarely-performed curiosity for some years to come.
Note: The following review dates from May 2002 and this production's original run at Stratford.
It says it quite clearly on the programme - "Edward III by William Shakespeare". Not "possibly by ..." nor even "by Shakespeare and others". But this bald ascription of the authorship of this play, which scholars have been arguing over since 1760, is a triumph of marketing over scholarship.
Undoubtedly Shakespeare wrote some of it. The scenes in which Edward III attempts to seduce the Countess of Salisbury, and the drama of Edward the Black Prince's first triumph on the battlefield, have long been acknowledged to be his. It's possible he wrote the rest but, if so, it's one of the weaker plays. Of course, it wouldn't really matter to the theatregoer if it really worked on stage, but this piece has a number of shortcomings.
The structure of the play is uneven. For the first hour, the king tries unsuccessfully to seduce the wife of the Earl of Salisbury, then goes to France to embark on the Hundred Years war and see his son Edward, the Black Prince, prove valorous on the battlefield. Few of the characters have much psychological depth and, although the action is sometimes engaging and exciting, other parts are static and wordy and (frankly) border on the tedious.
Director Anthony Clark, who comes to the RSC from the Birmingham Rep, has made some odd decisions in this production. The costumes are a stylish mixture of 14th-century and 20th-century fashions. Guy-ropes from the flies to the stage are used effectively to create a tent for the French forces, then proliferate during the battles scenes to little obvious purpose. But Clark handles the ritual and ceremony well in a play that celebrates heraldry and the newly founded Order of the Garter.
David Rintoul as Edward III and Michael Thomas as the King of France give worthy performances in the two leading roles, which offer limited scope. But it's left to Jamie Glover and Wayne Cater to enthuse the audience. Glover well deserves his fast-growing reputation as one of our most exciting young actors and, in the Black Prince, he creates a national hero who's easy to admire. Cater, as Edward III's secretary, provides the only real comedy of the evening. This young man gets better every time I see him and, though he lacks Glover's good looks, he seems destined to become as bright a star.
Was it worth the RSC reviving this play? Definitely. Is it worth going to see? Well, yes, if you are deeply interested in Shakespeare, have seen the major plays and now want to explore the other work in which he had a hand. Is it likely to enter the standard Shakespeare repertoire? I doubt it.
Edward III opened at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-on-Avon on 25 April 2002 (previews from 10 April) and ran there in repertory until 14 September 2002.