Edward III is not a play that has been recognised as part of Shakespeare's canon until very recently. This "prequel" to the history plays may or may not be by the Bard but it is, at worst, a very good pastiche and, at best, worthy of the attribution.
It relates the tale of a time when Britannia really did rule the waves. By its end, Edward is King, not only of his own country, but of France and Scotland too. It is only with his successors that these realms gradually slipped away.
The plot is very complex, as so much action is fitted into the play's just under three hour duration. It starts by establishing the King's ancestry, which owes nearly as much to France as England. After an invasion of Northumberland by the Scots, Edward travels North to recover his lands. There, he falls under the spell of the married Countess of Salisbury (Caroline Faber) and neglects his country's interests for his lust.
Despite blackmailing not only this unbelievably pure woman (symbolised by her white dress) but also her father, he starts a pattern that becomes familiar as he backs down rather than forcing the issue. This is, though, only after he shows a heartless willingness to sacrifice her husband and the Queen to win the Countess' hand.
Having been brought to his senses, Edward, accompanied by his son Prince Ned, invades France and has a magnificent victory at the battle of Crecy. Ned proves himself a kind of Superman, seemingly immortal, able to win numerous battles against the odds and inhumanly good by way of contrast with his father.
The French side mirrors the English, as King John (Michael Thomas) would willingly break his word and kill a man assured of safe passage while the Dauphin and his brother are far gentler and more honourable.
The play is blessed with humour. This is well brought out by David Rintoul and Caroline Faber during the wooing of the Countess. There is also a typical Shakespearean clown, the King's servant Lodowick, played to great comic effect by Wayne Cater, who also demonstrates a good singing voice.
The performance of the regal Rintoul as the complex, almost schizophrenic king is convincing. He is at times cruel and at others generous, for example when he orders the starving of Calais to be fed. Similarly Jamie Glover is very good as Ned, The Black Prince, a truly heroic and noble man. It is also something of a rarity to view a historical play that sees the English victorious and both of these heroes surviving to the end.
Edward III contains much pomp and swordplay. It is often a great spectacle and this owes much to Wayne Dowdeswell's lighting, Conor Linehan's music and Terry King's fight direction.
Patrick Connelan's design uses a bare stage but contains considerable subtleties amidst the chain mail and armour of battle. This is typified by the opposing kings viewing bloody war from high chairs, like tennis umpires while the dead are counted off on two gigantic abaci, with blue and red skulls to register the kills. Very moving.
It seems amazing that almost 400 years after the death of the world's most famous playwright, a new play is added to his list. We will probably never establish its true provenance. Whether or not Edward III is by Shakespeare, in this production by Anthony Clark of Birmingham Rep, it proves to be an entertaining history that sets the scene for Richard II and all that follows.
This review originally appeared on Theatreworld in a slightly different version.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher