Rose Rage (Part 1)
William Shakespeare, adapted by Edward Hall and Roger Warren
Theatre Royal, Haymarket
Edward Hall was responsible for Henry V, perhaps the most successful element of the RSC season of Shakespeare's history plays in 2001. He somehow managed to combine a devotion to Shakespeare's original with a very modern feel.
Together with Roger Warren, he has now adapted the three Henry VI plays into two parts lasting about two hours each. A necessary consequence of losing over 50 per cent of Shakespeare's original is that this adaptation can seem breathless. Far more often, it becomes very fast paced and like Henry V, very contemporary and exciting. It could also easily be adapted into a film or television production with many short scenes with sharp cuts between them.
This series of plays is very gory and Hall's decision to set it in designer Michael Pavelka's clinical slaughterhouse brings this home quite brutally. The deaths of the key players are sickeningly depicted despite the fact that there is almost no blood.
The ethos behind Hall's Propeller Company seems to be very self-contained. They play as an ensemble and provided their own musical back up. This consists of a cappella singing and percussion often provided by a meat cleaver and knife sharpener - a rarely seen musical combination!
Propeller is all male and this has two consequences. First, many of the female parts are cut from this adaptation. Secondly, the one that remains, Henry's less than loyal Queen, Margaret of Anjou, is played very well by a man, Robert Hands. He injects a great deal of camp humour, looking as if he has minced straight from La Cage aux Folles.
The King (played by Jonathan McGuinness) may be beguiled by the often wise and witty Margaret but it has already become clear that her only true love will be the evil Earl of Suffolk (Vincent Leigh). Their plotting removes the upstanding Protector, Gloucester (Matthew Flynn), who provides one of the most poignant moments as he speaks to defend his honour, prior to his untimely murder.
The contemporary view is particularly appropriate when the politicking and spin take off. This could as easily be a parliamentary backroom today as 16th Century England.
The comedy reaches its peak with the rebellion by Jack Cade. Tony Bell plays this comic hero with his tongue in his cheek and some members of the audience appeared to fear imminent execution, so good was his performance.
No sooner does Henry see off Cade than Guy Williams as Richard of York makes a play for the throne, together with his sinister sons. Despite his calmness and wisdom, life is not easy for the young king and seems far harder as his problems come upon each other so fast in this version.
One of the problems with cutting so much of Shakespeare's original is that it is often necessary to introduce explanations or narration to fill in the gaps. This generally works but inevitably, there cannot be the same depth as there was in the RSC's full version last year.
This may be a cut-down version of Shakespeare but it still represents a real success for Edward Hall. It is very exciting and like his Henry V, often far funnier than one expects from the Bard's history plays.
Rose Rage (Part 2)
The second part of Rose Rage covers Henry VI Part Three. This is where the politicking stops and the bloody fighting takes over. It is inevitable that director, Edward Hall, is in his element once the gloves are taken off. In that there is so much action, this part also feels very concentrated although far less of the text has been cut than in Part One.
The director has a good knack of getting a feel for place and faction. This part starts with the King's supporters humming and then singing Jerusalem as the stage is covered with the flag of St George. We are immediately into the drama as Richard, Duke of York, a very placid Guy Williams, wins the country from Henry. However, these cousins are willing to compromise at the expense of Henry's offspring.
The massively incensed Queen Margaret (Robert Hands) becomes a flying fury in her attempts to protect the birthright of her son Ned, looking rather like a little drummer boy. The contrast between the calm Henry played by Jonathan McGuinness and his violent wife is rather paralleled on the Yorkist side by Richard and his much more demanding sons.
Henry's position is made clear as he explains that he has little faith in his own title to the English crown. His sense of fairness allows him it to hand it over to sworn enemies, albeit only on his death.
Margaret and her henchman Clifford then proceed to ensure that the bloody war will be the inevitable outcome as they slaughter Rutland, Richard's son and still only a child. His father quickly goes the same way and in a trice, another of his sons, Edward IV, is crowned.
Tim Treloar plays Edward as one of the biggest jokes than has ever been King of England. He is a high liver whose lecherous instincts lead him to marry Lady Elizabeth Grey, very nicely played by Simon Scardifield. By doing so, he antagonises the French king, Louis, for whose sister Edward's emissaries had been fixing a marriage to the English King. Inevitably, the announcement that Edward was already married concludes this attempted diplomatic coup which would have united the two countries. Had he remained more sober, the whole course of English history might have been different.
The bloody cycle continues with the murders of young Ned and eventually, his father the King, in perhaps the most terrifying scene of all of the murders that are seen through the four hours of Rose Rage. This commences with his successor, Richard, throwing off his slaughterhouse costume in stunningly melodramatic style.
As well as the fighting between the Houses of York and Lancaster, there is also infighting on both sides. The gentle Henry (constantly seen counting his rosary) comes up against the shrewish Margaret and her supporters much to his disadvantage. Similarly, Edward may well have felt that he had the support of both of his surviving brothers, but in reality while Clarence is a lukewarm fan, the evil Richard, played beautifully in Al Capone costume by Richard Clothier, has his own personal designs on the Crown.
The play climaxes with a little dip into Richard III, much to the amusement and appreciation of an audience that has been constantly enthralled by this dash through the three parts of Henry VI. While Shakespeare is sometimes compromised by Edward Hall's imagination and invention, there is little doubt that if he were still with us he would thoroughly approve of the overall conception behind this wonderful entertainment.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher