Alison Croggan on “The War of Roses”

History is the discourse of power

- Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended

 

Here’s a good world the while! Why, who’s so gross

That cannot see this palpable device?

- Richard III, III, 6

 

Borders are always drawn in blood and states marked out with graves.

-Ratko Mladić, Serbian Army Chief of Staff during the Balkan War

 

Beginning with King John and ending with Henry VIII, the ten works known as Shakespeare’s History Plays dramatise five generations of brutal power struggle in mediaeval England. Although they were never written to be performed as cycles or as single epic works, the contemporary stage has seen a number of notable versions of the history plays as epic theatre. Peter Hall inaugurated the Royal Shakespeare Company with a cycle of eight plays, The Wars of the Roses, in 1964; again with the RSC, Adrian Noble made The Plantagents, an adaptation of the second tetralogy in 1988. Michael Bogdanov directed another famous seven-play adaptation, The Wars of the Roses, at the English Shakespeare Company in 1987. And so on.

Less illustriously, Bell Shakespeare did their own version Wars of the Roses in 2005. That production begged the question: why should 21st century Australians be interested in plays that are so crucially concerned with the question of Englishness, and which in fact have been formative of the fiction of English national consciousness? Can our staging these plays be anything more than a colonial gesture of defiance or obsequiousness, either being different sides of the same cultural coin? Or is there something else going on in these plays that can elicit a proper contemporary attention? Is there still something they can reveal?

Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews answer these questions authoritatively with their adaptation, The War of the Roses. Rendering eight plays in four acts over eight hours, this is a work of massive intellectual and theatrical ambition that will be impossible to encompass properly here. Trying to think about it is rather like a pleasurable version of Hercules’s adventures with the Hydra: every time I address a thought, another two spring up and demand attention. But, as Wittgenstein so comfortingly says, one has to begin somewhere.

The War of the Roses is theatre of a rare and desolating beauty. It generates its startling visual richness from a poverty of illusion. Andrews strips the stage to its back walls and finds for each of the four acts a single informing (and utterly transparent) theatrical metaphor. This lyric simplicity has the effect of framing and foregrounding Shakespeare’s language. It highlights the literary beauty, wit and power of the speeches, not by reverent attention to their formalities, but through excessive physical demands on the performers, which excavate the visceral truths of poetry.

In these plays, The War of the Roses is no longer plural. It is a single war, an Orwellian total war without end, a war in which peace is only war by other means, a war very close to that within which we live. And yes, in this intellectually epic realisation, Wright and Andrews demonstrate that there is indeed a reason to mount these plays in this day and time. Yes, they are parables that concern themselves with much more than narrow questions of British nationalism or pretty kings. Yes, in these old stories of English kings we can see, reflected in their faces, our own complicities, our own shames. They reflect for us the nightmare of our history, the blind, murderous tragedy that continues in our own time.

Power never goes out of fashion.

 

Power

Giving it the proper capitals, Shakespearean critic Jan Kott called it the Grand Mechanism: the eternally revolving machine of History that raises high and casts low, so that he who at first believes he makes history becomes at last history’s plaything, the executioner executed. In the History Plays, the primal violence that inaugurates the State is laid bare; the illusions that conceal its bloody origins are torn roughly aside. Pomp and ritual, the notion of justice, the vision of an “anointed king” whom God blesses, or a President with a personal phone line to the Almighty, all fly up like the painted scenery on a stage to reveal a bleak world driven by the machinery of power, in which the only thing that counts is who is stronger. In this world, the world that Shakespeare brought to artistic fruition in the dark, bestial universe of King Lear, history is Godless and bereft of meaning.

The wheel turns: the pretender murders the king and seizes the crown, only to become himself a victim. Thus, as Camus sardonically observed, you might witness the true meaning of Revolution. Hegel thought history had a deeper and rational purpose, the evolution of the human spirit towards freedom and enlightenment: Marx, following Hegel, thought it a mechanism that would generate freedom for the masses enslaved by capital. But Shakespeare’s view of history is altogether starker.

It is, in many ways, a pre-Christian vision. As a young man, Shakespeare encountered the Latin poets, in particular Seneca, whose bloody tragedies influenced works like Titus Andronicus, and Lucan. Marlowe’s translation of Lucan’s Pharsalia, his epic poem about the Roman Civil Wars, was popular in Elizabethan England when Shakespeare was writing the Henry VI plays, and may in fact have been their model. In this poem, Lucan describes the cosmos as a malfunctioning machine facing inevitable collapse under its own weight, a universe without meaning or purpose. Certainly in both works, ruinous civil wars lead to the creation of a tyrant – Caesar in one, Richard III in another.

Like Lucan and Seneca, Shakespeare saw history as an endless wheel of pain, a cycle of suffering that serves no purpose but its own continuation, and whose only production is corpses. The wheel turns and turns again: blood oils the axle, its iron rim crushes the human body under its irresistible weight, the next king rises and murders and falls. And for what? For the golden circle that is without beginning or end, the empty crown of state, the beautiful delusion that, once it has seduced its victims, reveals its true face:

…for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court…

- Richard II, III, 2

 

Time

Eight hours, eight plays, one hundred years. Shakespeare’s medium was time, his tool was language. He used language to sculpt time, revealing the sinews of History, its dynamic, dramatic form. Andrews and Wright have sculpted Shakespeare, cutting back the eight plays to their essential speeches, laying bare the bones of language and time that underlie the flesh of history.

The War of the Roses is an oratorio, a series of soliloquies made by people in agonising solitude. The protagonists are caught outside historical action, in the isolating interstices when they become conscious of the implications of their acts. As the audience, we become their silent witnesses, their co-conspirators, their allies and enemies and subjects. It’s a bold reworking that seems to create theatre at its purest and most essential, and yet the result continuously demands comparison to other arts, demonstrating its essential impurity: you think it is pure music, pure sculpture, pure poetry. Pure vision, pure dream.

Wright and Andrews have loosened the self-consciousness of the Renaissance stage, summoning an earlier idea of theatre. As the Shakespearean scholar Anne Richter noted, mediaeval drama implied both audience and player in one transcendent reality: the Easter plays were originatory rituals, where time future and time past were resolved into an infinite present. Shakespeare’s plays were part of a reality that splintered this holistic pageantry: his plays were the culmination of the secularisation of the dramatic stage, the zenith of the self-contained, self-conscious, articulate world that was the great invention of the Elizabethans.

Yet when the fire-curtain silently rises on the first stunning image of the cycle – Cate Blanchett as Richard II seated in a throne, surrounded by her unmoving courtiers, while an endless fall of gold leaf rains down onto the stage – what we see is not a Renaissance image, nor even a modern image. It is a mediaeval image, recalling in its hieratic formality nothing so much as the famous portrait of Richard II that is now in Westminster Abbey. And like the mediaeval pageants, this is a theatre that directly addresses us, which seeks to makes us implicit in its world. Through the four acts, we are begged, importuned, commanded, rebuked; we weep and laugh and are bewitched. We are not apart from this world. It even makes us flinch in immediate, visceral fear at the end of Part One, in an extraordinary coup of lighting: a huge shadow seems to fall from the top of the theatre as the curtain closes, as if a wall of darkness is falling onto us, a winged omen of dread. This theatre is more than a mirror. It is us.

There are of course still dialogic scenes – most notably the brilliant scene in Richard III when Richard (Pamela Rabe), the killer of Anne’s (Cate Blanchett) father and husband, seduces her as she follows the corpse of Henry VI, whom Richard has also murdered; or the scenes between Falstaff (John Gaden) and the wild, contemptuous young Hal (Ewen Leslie) in Henry V. But these play out in relief against a frieze of grinding existential solitude, and call into question the very basis of human communication. This is what makes The War of the Roses a contemporary production, rather than a nostalgic glance back to a romantic history: each character here is as pitilessly exposed, as cruelly alone, as any character in Beckett.

The War of the Roses begins and ends with two tragedies, Richard II and Richard III, which between them comprehend the decadence of power. They rhyme in more than name. Where Richard II is accompanied for more than an hour with a rain of gold, Richard III is performed on a children’s playground on which falls, silently and mercilessly, an endless rain of ash that blurs and conceals the corpses that accumulate about the stage.

In Richard II, we witness something more profound than mere regicide: we see the death of the idea of the king, the humanising of the sacred mouth of God to a mere mortal man, a foreshadowing of Lear’s realisation that he is but a “poor bare, forked stick”. In Richard III, we see what happens when desacralised power is put into conscious action. Richard II believes, up to the moment of his death and despite his forced abdication, that he is a king by divine right; Richard III knows he is king by right of his own malice, deception and violence. Richard II is a melancholy dream of a vain but sacred illusion that is ultimately destroyed by the concealed power that sustains it; Richard III a terrifying vision of amoral brutality.

In between the two tragedies, six plays are compressed into two acts. These follow the histories of three King Henrys, IV, V and VI. We witness the remorseless mechanism that is the engine of historical tragedy: an abattoir, an endless parade of death played out across the rich garden of the kingdom, ultimately reducing it to the final desert of ash, an endless winter of discontent.

In Part One, Act Two, a conflation of Henry IV and V, the stage is utterly bare, the only decoration to the action the guitarist Stefan Gregory, who stands by a giant amp, his back to the audience, picking out a growling lyric on his guitar. This act plays out the crisis of royal legitimacy, reminding us that the etymology of the word “royal” is the same as the word “real” (and that the Real was also a currency of the Spanish realm: gold and divine authority, the ultimate realities, were – and still are – closely linked). Henry IV (Robert Menzies), the murderer of Richard II, the anointed king, is haunted by doubt in the legitimacy of his power. He rules a realm riven by rebellion and is shamed by his wastrel son, Hal (Ewen Leslie), a stark contrast to the bellicose young Hotspur (Luke Mullins), who is fomenting rebellion against the monarch.

Henry IV’s desired legitimacy only comes after his death, when Hal, now Henry V, forswears his debauch. The state demands sacrifice for its inauguration and legitimation, and Henry expiates the sin of regicide with French blood. Defeated France marries Henry V in the person of Katherine of France (Luke Mullins), who, in one of the more chilling images of the play, rises from the floor as a French corpse covered with blood, and is washed and dressed in wedding clothes before being offered to Henry V.

This foreshadows the mechanical violence of Part Two, Act One, which follows the conflicts between the houses of York and Lancaster, symbolised by the white rose and the red. This slaughter takes place on a ground of flowers, a garden that becomes a battlefield. Each character plucks out their assigned colour in the legendary scene in the garden, when the nobles chose the red rose or the white to indicate their loyalties. But the colours are given a darker meaning: they are echoed in the blood spat into the face of actors, to signify murder, and the flour thrown over their bodies as corpse pallor. The flour hangs in the light like the phosphorous bombs hung over Gaza at Christmas time.

 

The Players

A hundred years, five kings. Outside the Globe Theatre, a sign read Totus mundus agit histrionem: All the world’s a stage. It’s a sentiment as ancient as Petronius, who is credited with its invention, and it was a commonplace of the Elizabethan age, when theatre was considered the mirror of the times. No one worked this metaphor with more variety, wit and point than Shakespeare.

This metaphor is woven through the entire production, but there are telling moments when it steps into the foreground. One is in Richard III, when Richard is plagued by nightmares before the Battle of Bosworth Field, assailed in his dreams by all those he has murdered. Each ghost curses Richard – Pamela Rabe in bloodied t-shirt and black trousers, her hair curtaining her face like an evil Joey Ramone – and blesses his enemy, Richmond (Luke Mullins). And then they all gather front stage, as actors do when the show is finished, and bow. And we see that the stage is Richard’s mind, a macabre playground where at first he is king of the castle, the playground bully and liar murdering his way to the top of the class with macabre glee. When the ghosts bow to us, heedless of death since the worst has already happened to them, Richard discovers that he is no longer playing history. Now, like all his forbears, all those kings who thought they were the authors of their own action, Richard finds that he is merely history’s plaything, after all. The role is playing him.

In this moment and others like it, we are also made pricklingly aware that Richard is an actor, a player who is, moreover, a woman, Pamela Rabe, who after the play is over will walk off the stage, strip off her costume and take a shower. This double consciousness of performance is a particularly Shakespearean trope, and Andrews has exploited it to the hilt in The War of the Roses. The ambiguity of the Player King – the king whose pomp is all performance, the actor whose performance is all kingliness, each reflecting the perilous illusions and realities of the other – is a constant motif through the History Plays and the tragedies, and its double meaning expands still further in this production in the ash-strewn playground of Richard III.

The metaphor generates its power from the compelling reality of the performances: if we did not believe in the cruel grace of Richard II, if we were sceptical of the grief opened on the whetstone of Bolingbroke’s ambition, if the lewdness of Hal and Falstaff played false or Anne’s tragic death were laughable instead of pathetic and sad, then the mundane reality beneath the playing would have no power to enrich our watching, and to unite our quotidian and imaginative worlds into a single complex reality.

What does it mean to “believe” a performance? This production gives plenty of occasions to consider this question: the acting is superlative, as good as you will see anywhere, with performances of breadth and disturbing depths, with nuance and skill and delicacy and the kind of passion that hooks the heart on barbed wire. To “believe” an actor means, I think, to become more conscious, to open the imagination to the full scope of emotional possibility. It means to understand better the meaning of our own humanity. It is not always comfortable.

This is the final production of the STC’s Actors Company, the beautiful dream of a permanent ensemble that foundered on the Scylla and Charybdis of Sydney public opinion and uneven programming. To my mind miraculously, the Actors Company produced some unforgettable work along the way. And it seems to me that if it took three years to make this show, and The War of the Roses were all that the Actors Company produced, it was well worth the bother. After all, there are companies in Europe – much lauded by critics here who have been very quick to claim that the Actors Company was a waste of resources – who have done no more than work on a single production for three years.

Every time I’ve seen the Actors Company, I’ve been impressed by the fluidity of its performance, the depth of the ensemble’s dynamic on stage. The War of the Roses takes this several steps further, with Andrews’ direction springing off those relationships to generate the terrifying alienation that is the harsh lesson of this production. Above all else, one is watching a practised group at work, by now polished by three years’ daily intimacy. The stage glows with the genius of the ensemble, which generates a lucidity of performance that you simply cannot attain in the job-to-job schedule of normal acting work.

A month into the season, I didn’t see a single weak actor, and the two guest actors – Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies – sit brilliantly within the cast. And this show features individual performances that are simply remarkable, portrayals that deserve to be lauded and remembered years hence as moments when greatness graced our stage.

Images that remain with me: Cate Blanchett as Richard II, luminous and sly, the image of arrogant wit and grace, heartless and heartbreaking, walking over broken glass to the crown; Robert Menzies as Bolingbroke, Henry IV, driven by anger, grief, regret and bitterness, surrounded by his likenesses in a macabre dance that stirred real horror; Ewen Leslie as Henry V, a revelatory performance, charismatically sexual, violent, his body drenched with honey and oil and blood in a diabolical anointing of royalty; John Gaden, brilliant and desolately moving as John of Gaunt and Edmund Duke of York, wickedly knowing and irrepressibly lustful as Falstaff; Marta Dusseldorf, terrifying in her hatred and ambition as Margaret of Anjou, teaching Queen Elizabeth (Amber McMahon) how to curse; Eden Falk, fumblingly innocent and somehow frightening as the child king Henry VI; Pamela Rabe, wickedly juvenile, blackly witty, clumsy, terrifyingly amoral and charismatic as Richard III. But none of these individual moments would be possible without the context around them.

And now, having reached this pitch of real greatness, the Actors Company is to end, to be replaced by a humbler workshop version of fresh faces that, according to the 2009 program, will be mainly working behind the scenes, “refining new work in the rehearsal room”. No doubt it is a sensible decision, given the controversy that has surrounded the Actors Company; perhaps Sydney will heave a huge sigh, to be relieved of such difficult and expensive beauty. But I can’t help wishing that Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton had held their nerve and persisted in the grand folly of the Actors Company. Having seen the brilliant work that is The War of the Roses, dropping the company that made it seems like nothing so much as a terrible failure of imagination.

Alison Croggan, Theatre Notes, 2009 - http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com/