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The Wars of the Roses

William Shakespeare
Northern Broadsides/West Yorkshire Playhouse co-production
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
(2006)

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Music has always been an integral part of Northern Broadsides' no-frills Shakespeare productions, but in Wars of the Roses the company has excelled itself. Where else could you see a band consisting of Joan of Arc and Henry VI on violin, Edward IV on double bass, Warwick on saxophone and Lord Hastings on trumpet? All this AND a tap-dancing Queen Elizabeth

Barrie Rutter's new adaptation of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy and Richard III manages to compress four plays into three gripping episodes - Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. There is a limit to the number of parts a cast of 21 can play between them so many of the minor characters have disappeared. There were moments, particularly in Henry VI, when the cuts seemed a little excessive - the mutual loathing between Gloucester and Winchester, for example, loses some of its motivation without their scene at the Tower of London - but they were few and far between.

As the overall title suggests, the war in France plays a minor role in the struggle between York and Lancaster so the original Henry VI Part One has been cut to the bone. As if being burned at the stake wasn't bad enough, poor Joan of Arc (Maeve Larkin) loses most of her lines and her struggle with Talbot (Mark Stratton) is reduced to a symbolic combat with the English hero on drums and Joan performing an athletic dance. It works well enough, but would have been even more effective if Larkin's costume hadn't made her look quite so much like Peter Pan.

The hapless King Henry, beautifully played by Andrew Whitehead, matures from an awkward adolescent struggling to balance his orb and sceptre to the tragic "holy Harry". It's a role that can try an audience's patience, but Whitehead avoids the clichés of gormlessness and godliness so often associated with the character. His diminutive spitfire of a wife Queen Margaret (Helen Sheals) has enough self-confidence for both of them - no wonder Henry is politely informed that the Lancastrians fare better when he isn't actually present at the battlefield!

Director Barrie Rutter is a commanding Richard of York, the ambitious father of two kings - Edward IV (Richard Standing) and Richard III (Conrad Nelson, who also composed the music). Standing is equally effective as the playboy wooer of Lady Grey (Kate Williamson) and the prematurely aged, dying monarch conned into executing his brother George (John Gully). He is surely the first Edward to perform a jazzy double bass solo at his coronation whilst his Queen displays her tap-dancing skills. Conrad Nelson plays Richard as a demonic comedian/game show host with a nice line in manic grins and fake bonhomie, the sort of man you wouldn't trust to feed your cat over the weekend. He milks the role's outrageous, OTT villainy for all it's worth, although a few famous lines are lost through a combination of naturalistic delivery and Northern accent.

I must confess to being baffled by the abrupt change from medieval to modern dress at the end of Edward IV, and the equally abrupt reversion to the Middle Ages for the Battle of Bosworth Field. The decision to replace Joan's fiends with two angelic beings, one carrying a martyr's palm, also seemed to go against the grain of the text. But these are minor quibbles - the sheer energy of the production carries all before it.

Jessica Worrall's uncluttered set may have been designed with touring in mind but it's perfectly adequate for all three parts of the trilogy. Two semi-ruined buildings, one of them with an exterior staircase, serve as prisons, palaces and city walls. At the rear of the stage is a huge backdrop painted in swirling patterns of fiery red and black, suggestive of burning towns in war-torn England and France.

Although each part of Wars of the Roses can be enjoyed separately, the best way to see it is as an all-day marathon starting at 10.30 am and finishing at 10.30 pm. The wear and tear on your nether regions is more than justified by this compulsively watchable production - over seven hours of playing time simply flies by. And if you're exhausted by the end of the day, spare a thought for the cast!

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, until 22nd April, then touring to Liverpool, Salford, Guildford, Blackpool, Newcastle under Lyme, Scarborough, Newcastle, Glasgow and Halifax. Tour ends 1st July.

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson