The Wars of the Roses

Theatre, Shakespeare
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 (© Mark Douet)
1/4
© Mark Douet

Henry IV: Joely Richardson (Margaret of Anjou) Alex Waldmann (Henry VI) Michael Xavier (Earl of Suffolk)

 (© Mark Douet)
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© Mark Douet

Edward IV: Alexander Hanson (Duke of Buckhingham) Joely Richardson (Queen Margaret)

 (© Mark Douet)
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© Mark Douet

Richard III: Laurence Spellman (Earl of Richmond) Robert Sheehan (Richard III)

 (© Mark Douet)
4/4
© Mark Douet

Robert Sheehan (Richard III)

This bombastic Shakespeare mash up has not aged well

Panto season starts earlier every year. Except this nine-hour Shakespeare marathon doesn’t realise what a pantomime it is. Fifty years ago, the RSC’s founders Peter Hall and John Barton turned four of Shakespeare’s plays - ‘Henry VI Parts I, II and III’, and ‘Richard III’ - into three, sticking an 'Edward IV' in the middle. This is its first revival, dragged back from the '60s kicking and screaming by the storied Sir Trevor Nunn.

On paper it’s a crowdpleaser: the cast includes Robert Sheehan from ‘Misfits’, Rufus Hound, Joely Richardson. But even before opening night it was criticised for its huge all-white cast, and that’s just one of its problems.

It wants to be the archetype of Shakespearean performance: loud declamation by a bunch of white men in wigs, shouting 'TO VICTORY!' and swinging swords with full phallic fervour. But that also makes it extraordinarily unimaginative, as if Nunn has never encountered the concept of metaphor. When Richard III is visited by ghosts, they wear - you guessed it - white sheets.

Some bits are almost funny, though we’re laughing at rather than with. But when hour five begins and there’s another slow-mo fight scene, another messenger delivering urgent news from a balcony…it just exposes itself for the overwrought and uninspired production that it is.

There’s a fun ‘Les Mis’ aesthetic to John Napier’s towering treehouse design and Mark Bouman’s costumes - albeit with fewer songs and less sympathy towards the French. And Alex Waldmann gives a decent performance as Henry VI. He makes the king a meek, fey man who gets his advisors to hold hands. Everything else is bombast verging on parody of that crusty and antediluvian acting style: jerks in jerkins ENUNCIATING. EVERY. WORD.

This is Shakespeare karaoke: brash, loud, best endured ironically and after several drinks. And, like karaoke, it doesn’t matter how good a singer steps up to the mic; it will still sound shit. So, Sheehan’s Richard III is cartoonishly evil, Richardson’s Margaret of Anjou has a dodgy faux-French accent.

Still, despite its many, many shortcomings you can’t fault it for clarity. The whole convoluted story of betrayals and successions is easy to follow. But despite the comparisons in the programme, Game of Thrones this ain’t. It’s a leaden trudge through the ups and downs of Shakespeare’s Ed, Dick and Harry.

By: Tim Bano

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I've only seen Richard III but it's a great production, with Robert Sheehan giving a superlative performance as the titular Duke of Gloucester - I never watched Misfits so I wasn't aware of him before this but he's 100% star material.  He captures the cowardice, villainy and charisma of the man perfectly.  The staging is excellent, with a towering multi-tiered stage.  Extremely keen to see more of the War of the Roses performances now.