Keith Gallasch on “The War of the Roses”

THE STANDOUT PRODUCTION OF THE 2009 SYDNEY FESTIVAL WAS THE SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY’S THE WAR OF THE ROSES, A MAGNIFICENT CONFLUENCE OF VISION, SKILFUL EDITING, DIRECTION, ACTING AND DESIGN. IT WAS ALSO THE LAST PRODUCTION FROM THE STC ACTORS COMPANY (WITH GUESTS CATE BLANCHETT AND ROBERT MENZIES). WHAT FOLLOWS IS NOT A REVIEW SO MUCH AS AN EXTENDED APPRECIATION IN THE SPIRIT OF THE PRODUCTION, IN AN AGE IN WHICH REVIEWS (ONE OR TWO SIGNIFICANT BLOGGERS ASIDE) GROW SHORTER AND SHORTER AND THE CONVERSATION DIMINISHES.

act one: part one: richard ii

The stage heavens gently snow gold leaf over the court of Richard II (Cate Blanchett), a simple tableaux of seated king in elegant white slacks and shirt and modest golden crown, facing the audience; behind him an ordered array of courtiers and the lords-at-odds, Bolingbroke (Robert Menzies) and Mowbray (Steve Le Marquand), all in modern everyday dress, quite unglamorous, look out at us, expressionless. But the gold! It utterly fills the vastness of the undressed stage; it mesmerises; it engraves the scene in the mind; it undoes perspective; it suggests a paradise; it never stops.

Here is a king, firmly in control of rancorous subjects, demanding ceremony and obedience, and stillness. Some seven hours later, and several generations of English history on, it snows again over the same bare stage, this time dressed with the very real swings and roundabouts of a children’s playground, the domain of an utterly unceremonious Richard III—and this snow, now ash it seems, turns to deep slush around the bodies of the victims of civil war and its consequent tyrannies. This is the dark, descending arc of the Benedict Andrews-Tom Wright adaptation of eight of Shakespeare’s histories, a decline into the brutal genius of dumb tunnel vision that resonates (broadly here if not literally) with the Bush-Howard-Blair war on Iraq—our civil war, after all, on ourselves, our civil rights and consciences, where we become subjects again, instead of citizens. Pointedly, this production is titled The War of the Roses, the Wars of history reduced to one.

Between Richard II and Richard III of the House of York come the usurper Henry IV and his heirs, Henry V and VI of the House of Lancaster. Between the gold and the slush, there is civil war, war on France (and brief peace at home under Henry V) and then civil war again—bloody murder, here another form of ritual and play. In Henry VI, when the war begins in earnest, red liquid is swigged from plastic bottles and sprayed from the mouths of killers (a variation on the repeated insult of spitting) over their victims, followed by dusting with handfuls of flour. The true artist of this mortification is the soon-to-be Richard III (Pamela Rabe), casting spell-like clouds and arches of white around and over his victims. This Richard is a devious, malicious, loping child who, in the final act of The War of the Roses, chats with child performers in the playground: children witness to, even complicit in, his evil.

But the beginnings of this descent into disaster are already evident in the apparent paradise of Richard II, in another kind of childishness. Richard is kingly in manner but ultimately not in effect. By turns he appears distractedly interior, indifferent, flippant, callous and, worst, petulantly unpredictable. His sudden laughter is loud and inappropriate—as if mocking the passion of others or crudely covering for his possible complicity in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester. His elegance belies immaturity: impulsiveness and a failure to read his subjects lead to serious miscalculation. Instead of allowing Mowbray and Bolingbroke to resolve their quarrel in a chivalric joust he exiles both, but unequally—Mowbray for life, Bolingbroke for 10 years, then for six. On the death of John of Gaunt (John Gaden), Bolingbroke’s father, Richard is stupidly opportunistic, seizing all the old man’s property—Bolingbroke’s by right—and thus creating the grounds for insurrection that will see Bolingbroke become Henry IV and Richard dead—murdered by mistake or impulse, just as he had ruled.

Blanchett’s Richard is spellbinding. Still, authoritative, explosive, in control again, for the time being. We don’t witness the much reported, indolent gregariousness of the king: that is a given here in her detachment from the court with whom she resolutely refuses eye contact. Blanchett’s Richard is a loner at court, unlike, say, Fiona Shaw’s restless, fey Richard, directed by Deborah Warner for television in 1997, always in the arms of her courtier-hangers-on, passionately kissing her antagonists. Blanchett’s steely distancing and Andrews’ formal staging means we can believe in this king and be shocked when he errs. In this tautly edited version of the play, the focus is firmly on the personal trajectory of Richard from king to prisoner, a near tragic fall. So convinced of his right to be king, Richard cannot believe an insurrection is unfolding. But then the rain of gold, the golden reign, finishes abruptly, without ceremony: stage hands and actors with brooms and leaf-blowers drive the tiny, shiny rectangles into a deep pile at the back of the stage, an abject Richard in its midst. Fullness becomes extraordinary emptiness. When removed, Richard’s crown empties its accumulated, fallen gold. It is hollow indeed.

Soon Richard will surrender the crown to Bolingbroke, but it will be a deeply painful process, representing the push and pull between profound belief in his kingship, not just as divine right but as the core of his being, and emptiness, a doubting self. He demands his deposers understand what his giving up of the crown means. But this is the same man who failed to find compassion for Mowbray’s plea not to be separated from the language of his being—English; or the ageing Gaunt’s for the loss of a son he would never see again to exile (both speeches wonderfully delivered by Le Marquand and Gaden with passion constrained by the formality of the court).

In the end, Blanchett moves Richard beyond pathos, pushing him as close to tragic insight as possible as he struggles with an existential bind. When he calls for a mirror, he sees himself, not a king, smashes it to the floor and walks through the splintered fragments, littered, of course, with the last of the gold leaf. Blanchett fully realises the shock, anger and despair of a dislocated identity (“Thus play I in one prison many people,/ And none contented), a condition played to the very end with the requisite mix of ceremony (the surrender litany of “With my own tears…”), bitter irony (“I have a king here to be my flatterer”), self-awareness (“I find myself a traitor with the rest”) and too eloquent self pity. Blanchett give us all of this. Richard’s killer then empties gold leaf on him, like so much trash.

act one, part two: henry iv, henry v

The obdurate, aloof Henry IV is beset with, first, civil war which has prevented his planned atonement for deposing Richard—a pilgrimage to Jerusalem—and, second, a decadent son, Harry (Ewen Leslie) in the thrall of Falstaff (John Gaden). Henry appears to be ill, holds himself tight, almost stooped, as if, in Robert Menzies’ playing of the king, he is perpetually gripped by anger, disappointment and guilt—no mere bluff, pragmatic statesman but a wounded man who must push every word out into the world with effort.

Henry is still angered by the memory of “that skipping king”, Richard II, his undoing of the kingdom, and his son’s likelihood of doing the same. His lecture to Harry on how to play king is paralleled by a game that Harry plays with Falstaff, reversing roles of king and prince. Ironies abound: the bad father, Falstaff, has taught Hal (the older man’s name for the prince) much about people, in the way the king has not. Gaden seems at first an unlikely Falstaff, but just enough naked paunch, a flagon of malmsey, a blushing nose and broadened voice truly maketh the man. The relationship with Hal is very real, fluid, familiar, and momentarily if rather functionally sexual—Hal gives Falstaff a blow job, and dribbles the cum almost over the front row of the audience (already littered with gold). The sex seems almost incidental, but integral no less when we later witness Henry’s death struggle with Hotspur (Luke Mullins) and the courtship with Catherine of France (Mullins again, in falsetto).

For all his pragmatic wisdom about kingship, Henry IV fails, like Richard II, to see what is before him, thinking the chivalric Hotspur a better “son” than his own. He does not recognise Mullins’ lithe, eager, feckless Hotspur as a challenge to the throne. Harry will, unnoticed, kill Hotspur, saving his father in a strange tussle (like bears wrestling on hind legs, with a convulsive, sexual shuddering). The kill is then claimed by Falstaff, and Hal lets that pass. not yet ready to reject the man.

As in Richard II, the editorial focus closes in on duets: here it’s Prince Henry and Henry IV at odds and in conciliation; Hal and Falstaff at play; Harry and Hotspur in battle. The deathbed exchange between the dying Henry and the prince is particularly affecting with its errors and accidents of judgment and perception. Harry, thinking his father dead, takes the crown; the waking Henry accuses him of virtual patricide. However, an underlying warmth between the two struggles to the surface in this finely played scene. They become one and the succession is guaranteed, by inheritance if not divine right and Harry’s promise of personal reform. Finally, there’s the rejection of Falstaff: Hal, now King Henry V, adds to the pain by spitting on the old man. These intense duets are interspersed with the brutal horrors of rebellion, antecedents to the protracted war in Henry VI.

There is another duet, unspoken, unacknowledged and principally between the king and a musician. Henry IV is given the sparest of stagings: an undressed stage and on it a lone, young electric guitarist (Stefan Gregory) with amplifier and foot pedals faces away from us and plays a long, raw solo we can’t ignore but which does not mess with the words. It grows in complexity and thickening harmonies, becoming beautiful, an eloquent dirge for the sad life of a guilty, disappointed king who bequeaths just enough stability for his son to succeed.

Ewen Leslie’s Prince/Harry/Hal is one of the remarkable character creations in The War of the Roses, a boy-man visibly crippled by his decadence—the hint of a limp, twitching when tense, a cough—but with an ennabling common touch, wit and the capacity to listen. He learns to play king, drawing from the lessons of both his fathers, Henry and Falstaff, without duplicating their weaknesses, if carrying within pain and doubt.

In Henry V that sense of woundedness we saw in Harry is sustained in a radical account of the play in which an ornate rust-red curtain is lowered downstage. There the play’s Chorus prefaces each of a series of solo speeches by the king. Henry performs without grand eloquence or heroics; there is no crowd, no army, just us, whom he addresses with a quiet, heartfelt intensity. First he appears covered in honey and glitter; then, as he invades France and his troops fall prey to bad weather and illness, he is coated in black oil; then as battle and victory ensue he is drenched in thick red blood. As with the falling gold in Richard II, a single, sculptural device in Henry V, a series of still, painted bodies of one man against a stage curtain (for that metatheatrical, most-chorused, pageant of a play) rivets our attention to a man playing the role of king with the utmost determination while something deeper, unspeakable within, quivers. The curtain rises, he is slowly washed clean for his courting of Katherine of France.

part two: act one: henry vi

If in Richard II and Henry IV, Andrews and Wright fix closely on their kings and the immediate dynamics of intimate if difficult relationships, and let those flow on to underscore Henry V’s solo turn, the challenge of Henry VI is quite something else. This act draws on three of Shakespeare’s plays in which the king, Henry VI, figures relatively little (the actual Henry became king at nine months, suffered mental collapses in the course of his 50 years, was sometime ruled by his warlike wife, Margaret of Anjou, founded colleges, including Eton, was in and out of power and finally murdered). But here he is central to the realisation of this part of The War of the Roses. It’s as if we witness the decline into civil war through his eyes and, sometimes, ears. It’s a reminder, too that Shakespeare would have known that the real king was found alone, distracted and unattended at the end of two major battles. Here, Henry wanders the battlefield seeing a father who has unknowingly killed a son, and vice versa—here the reversal is played by the same performers, adding to the sense of Henry’s, and increasingly our own, delirium.

This Henry VI is an autistic youth in a garden—a rectangle bordered by floor level fluorescent light tubes and awash with cut roses of many colours. It is here that the dispute between the Houses of York (white rose) and Lancaster (red rose) becomes full-blown and murders soon escalate into a rapid series signalled by digital readout suspended over the stage (“The Killing of York” etc). Thus three long plays become one briskly told tale about a tottering, giggly Lancastrian king, who suffers fits. His power is in the hands of the Duke of Suffolk (Steve le Marquand) who chooses for the king a wife, Margaret of Anjou (Marta Dusseldorp). She and Suffolk mate like playful dogs. Then Henry finds himself governed on the one hand by his wife and on the other by the Protector, the ambitious Duke of York (John Gaden), whose sons include the future Richard III. Tensions in the court mount, but they are beyond Henry, and us with him. In one passage, composer Max Lyandvert’s score calculatedly drowns out everyone’s words, as if Henry is lost in iPod land. He slips in and out of awareness, laughing when Suffolk is murdered, alert to the tell-tale extremity of Margaret’s grieving, amused when his brattish cousins buffet and kiss him in act of false fealty.

Henry’s world is increasingly a nightmare: the blood spray murders multiply, cruelties abound (York’s infamous offering of a napkin to damp tears when the very cloth is stained with the blood of his victim’s beloved); York’s sons play with bodies; roses are stacked high, like the gold become rubbish in Richard II. A cycle of vengeance spirals out of control, victims and murderers rise up to repeat themselves; a half dozen Margarets of various ages and genders appear across the stage; her son Edward is murdered by the soon-to-be Richard III. She washes Edward, as he stands before her (as the dead do here) but with blood, which will never clean the horror she too has unleashed. Richard murders Henry in a cruel disabling, severing the neck from behind. The last Lancastrian king is dead, Edward IV of York rules, the war is, in a way, over. Now Richard will eliminate members of his own family.

Amidst the horrors of the war, Henry VI remains a simple figure, Eden Falk affectingly conveying the varying degrees of innocence, detachment, horror and guilt (that he might be a cause of all this), with the body language of an undeveloped child. Gaden’s Duke of York is frightening in his growing resolution, Marta Dusseldorp is a relentless then distressed Margaret, Pamela Rabe emerges from the shadows as Richard, just another one of the boys, but much more dangerous.

part two, act 2: richard iii

The grim, wintry playground of Richard III is peopled with children, idle ghosts and those soon to be added to the dead as Richard play-acts and murders his way to the throne. Pamela Rabe’s idiosyncratic Richard is a lumbering adolescent attired in baggy clothing that obscures his hump while a mass of hair frequently hides his face if not his perpetual amusement. Rather than sharing his self-justifications and strategies principally with us, his confidantes, he spreads them about amiably, offering them to his playground fellows. He plays a game of murder with one child; both are delighted to have fooled us.

Richard is persuasive in his seduction of Anne (her dead husband, Edward IV, Richard’s victim, lies nearby buried in ash) but without ever losing his casual boyishness. Blanchett responds with the requisite anger but then a sense of astonishment that this could be happening, followed by grim acceptance, as if it is best to play along. Soon, true to the stark realism of this rendering of Richard III (no spraying of blood here), she hangs herself from the swing.

This Richard is greedy not just for power and the fun of the chase, but for food, tearing into a chicken with his fingers while planning his worst. Deceptively casual and slow, he soon moves dangerously fast. He springs into a cock-like strut (“I am not in the giving vein”) when turning on his partner-in-play-and-crime, Buckingham who is astonished at the sudden escalation of events—the murder of the princes in the Tower. Richard’s end is likewise near as Henry Tudor (a descendant of the House of Lancaster’s John of Gaunt) and army approach. Richard III’s state of mind at the end, like Richard II’s, is complex, here a momentary but deeply felt oscillation into fear and self-pity before a re-assertion of will. Defeated in battle, fallen, he slowly reaches out to Henry Tudor, offering the crown in what looks deliciously like a mocking invocation of Richard II surrendering the very same crown to Bollingbrook. Has the war finished, or another usurper of the same house taken the throne? At the end of The War of the Roses, a child stares out at us from an ashen landscape, the instruments of play draped in funereal black. A war has made malicious children of men and women and, true to Shakespeare’s vision, revealed the sheer fragility of sovereignty.

The Richard III with which Rabe, Andrews and Wright intrigue and fascinate us comes as a very real surprise after generations of rather like-bodied and minded villains. This murderous child may test the already limited but critical empathy that we feel for Richard at the end, but as the final part of a trajectory of increasing childishness from Richard II’s immaturity on, through Henry V’s delinquent youth, Henry VI’s naivety and York’s murderous sons, this Richard is an apt creation, not least because in our world children, willing or not, have increasingly become warriors. There’s also much of the victim child in Richard’s rationalisations. For all his assertiveness and defiance he sees himself as cheated, deformed by nature and by witchcraft and has turned this anger out on to the world with all the rational cunning of a psychotic. But, as with the other kings in The War of the Roses, we glimpse in this man disturbing moments of insight and complexity, the warring elements of the un-singular self.

whose world?

To achieve their vision of a kingdom’s inexorable decline into civil war, to present Shakespeare’s disparate body of history plays as one and to focus principally on the men who wore the crown (and only their immediate allies and antagonists) has meant Andrews and Wright have had to reduce the vast world of these plays (some 30 hours of stage time if you did them all), sweeping aside bishops, whores, taverners, mayors, mercenaries, ambassadors, popular rebels and petty criminals, and Joan of Arc, all part of the great canvas of Shakepseare’s innovation. It’s a large price to pay, but a small one too for the great achievements of The War of the Roses—the rigour and persistence of its vision across near eight hours, the sheer power of its ensemble playing (sadly, the last of the Actors Company productions) and the memorable, virtuosic and emotionally complex performances from Cate Blanchett, John Gaden, Ewen Leslie, Pamela Rabe, Robert Menzies and others. The descent into death of a kingdom and its people, so emblematic of The War of the Roses, resonates acutely with today’s states of war. It is brilliantly counterpointed with the production’s fidelity to Shakespeare’s skill in evoking psychological complexity and testing an audience’s capacity for empathy for these flawed kings and their families.

Keith Gallasch, 2009

This article originally appeared in RealTime 89 and is reproduced with the permission of the writer and the publisher, Open City;www.realtimearts.net