Wars of the Roses (Rose Theatre Kingston)
Joely Richardson makes up a strong cast in Trevor Nunn's Shakespeare trilogy
The first performances of the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III took place in the first ever Rose on Bankside around 1590. And those newly excavated Rose ruins in 1989 were the footprint for the foundation of the new Rose at Kingston, whose first artistic director, Peter Hall, is now sadly ailing in a nursing home.
So it's part tribute, part inspirational happenstance, that Trevor Nunn has revived the Wars of the Roses trilogy – Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III, the first two a compression of the Henry VI plays with seamlessly composed 'new bits' written by John Barton in 1963/4…which is when this project, directed by Hall and Barton, established the RSC as a world class company.
What I didn't realise at the time ( I was a schoolboy) was just how skilfully put together the first two plays were; and I thought there really was one called Edward IV (played, unforgettably, by Roy Dotrice). Subsequent productions of the full Henry VI trilogy – by Terry Hands and Michael Boyd at the RSC, Michael Bogdanov for the company he ran with Michael Pennington in the 1980s and, most recently, by brilliant young Thomas Jolly in Avignon, Paris and Rouen — have enhanced and developed their reputation.
Nunn's other argument for doing the condensation is that you need Richard III to complete the arc of history "to validate and celebrate the arrival of the Tudor dynasty" and that the four complete plays are too much for one sitting. Maybe, but the audience at the Rose on Saturday seemed up for anything, even though Richard III was a crashing disappointment after the tough, taut politicking in the first two three-hour sagas.
Robert Sheehan is a fine, appealing young Irish actor, but he simply doesn't have the voice, or the kind of energy, to drive along the black farce of Richard. He would have made a more interesting, punkish rebel Jack Cade in the second play, just as comedian Rufus Hound, who struggles with Cade's larky loutishness, might have made a more satanic and charismatic Crookback.
Otherwise, Nunn's production, although it looks a bit musty, more 1950s than 1590s, is strongly cast with Alex Waldmann making a humorous little boy simpleton of Henry VI, the Norwegian television star Kåre Conradi doubling strongly as the Dauphin (sensually bewitched by Imogen Daines's gamine Joan of Arc, though I wish we'd seen her go up in flames) and Edward IV, Joely Richardson as a wonderful Margaret of Anjou, ageing into an uncanny likeness of her own mother, Vanessa Redgrave, as the she-wolf in full armour, and James Simmons as Talbot, terror of the French.
Equally good are Alexandra Gilbreath as a treacherous duchess and a betrayed queen, Alexander Hanson as York and Buckingham, Oliver Cotton as a triplet of worthies, Andrew Woodall as Gloucester (early on), Michael Xavier – real surprise, this – as a sexy Suffolk, pimping Margaret for the king and then drowning in dreams as the doomed Clarence, and Timothy Walker making a stately, jowl-shaking progress through the kingmaker Warwick before quietening down as a slippery Catesby.
For old RSC hands there are so many ghosts summoned in Guy Woolfenden's magnificent original music (arranged by Colin Buckeridge) but, as befits the Rose, John Napier's "concept" set design (executed by Mark Friend) is more wooden, galleried and softer than John Bury's grey steel, monumental original, with its forbidding council table; the wooden block here is a bit, well, Ikea, and the sundry lords tend to sit in a static straight line along it.
There are plenty of old-style RSC banners, smoky battle alarums and hand-to-hand sword fights (courtesy of Malcolm Ranson) and the catastrophic impact of local civil war on French foreign policy is lucidly made throughout. In the build-up, Nunn was attacked for not casting any black actors and made the mistake of defending himself on grounds of historical authenticity. Such authenticity in the theatre is worthless, and he should have said he can cast whomever he wants; and he has, with mostly worthwhile and surprising results.
War of the Roses runs at the Rose Theatre Kingston until October 31.