William Shakespeare, adapted by Barrie Rutter
Part II of the Wars of the Roses trilogy
Northern Broadsides Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring
In Barries Rutter's two-part compilation of the Henry VI plays, Edward IV begins with the Jack Cade revolt, chronicles the rise of the House of York and ends with the coronation of Edward. The production has the same clarity as Henry VI as Rutter steers us through the political and personal relationship complexities but a sense of menace is added as we watch the emergence of Dick Crookback, changing from the fervent supporter of his father's claim to the throne, little different to his brothers Edward and George, to the "foul bunchback'd toad" of the next play, Richard III.
Indeed the ending of Edward IV (which is, of course, the ending of Henry VI, Part III) shades into the opening of Richard III, something which, with our dramatic sophistication, we find easy to accept but which, for Shakespeare's audience, must have been a stunning innovation. There are - inevitably - disputes about the order in which the plays were written and the traditional canon places Richard III before the Henry plays, but many modern scholars now argue that they were written in chronological order. Whatever the truth of the matter (and I confess I tend towards the moderns, feeling that Richard III is the work of a more experienced writer), there is no doubt that the whole sequence (and not just the transition between the two) was a "stunning innovation", for in it Shakespeare had invented a dramatic form which not only throws Aristotle out of the window but also enables him to follow the development of situations and relationships over a long period of years in a way which prefigures the modern novel!
Northern Broadsides' Edward IV follows the pattern of production set in the previous play: stylised playing, the use of music, particularly drummin (played by members of the cast) and dance, and a simple, straightforward rendering of the characters. I except from that last comment the characters of Richard of Gloucester and Henry VI for both characters deepen and become more complex as the play proceeds. And the characters are well served by the actors: I have already commented on Andrew Whitehead's performance as Henry in my review of the previous play and here we follow the process of his maturation through to the (bitter) end. As Richard, Conrad Nelson is increasingly subtle. Indeed, his "face is as a book where men may read strange matters."
This complexity of character in Henry and Richard sits alongside the other more broadly drawn characters. Jack Cade, for example, (played by Andrew Cryer) speaks what he feels and thinks in a simple and totally unsophisticated manner, and the Duke of York is a more sophisticated but equally (in many ways) simple version of Cade, and there is more than a little touch of Donald Wolfit in Barrie Rutter's performance, almost a campness which may seem to be at odds with modern approaches to Shakespeare but which is perfectly in keeping with this adaptation.
There are some amusing touches - at Edward's coronation Elizabeth tap dances to dance music played by an onstage band which includes her husband on double bass - and some oddities. Why at the coronation do we leave behind the generic historical/medieval costumes for modern dress?
Shorn of many of the minor characters and may of the incidents of the original three plays, this two-part adaptation works well. It was sad to see a fairly thin house in the Theatre Royal, although it has to be said that this was not only a Thursday night but a Thursday night in which England had a World Cup match which ended with a rather unconvincing - so I am told - English victory not long before the play started, as the celebratory crowds spilling out of the pubs showed. Richard III plays on Friday and the whole trilogy all day on Saturday. Hopefully the theatregoers of Newcastle will take these chances to see a very worthwhile production of the adaptation these infrequently performed plays and a perennial favourite.
J D Atkinson reviewed the trilogy at the West Yorkshire Playhouse
Touring to Glasgow and Halifax
Reviewer: Peter Lathan