“Sight may distinguish of colours, but suddenly to nominate them all, it is impossible”
First things first for this is too important an issue to be brushed under the carpet, too vital a conversation to not too have because a press release has been summarily issued, the “historical verisimilitude” justification for Trevor Nunn’s decision to cast an all-white company for his Wars of the Roses play cycle is just pure bunkum. At one point in Henry VI, a Norwegian man and a British woman appear on a balcony playing French characters but it’s OK because we’re in a theatre, they’re acting, the natural suspension of disbelief kicks in.
Similarly later on, the four sons of Richard of York appear, three played by adults and one by a boy. Historians might point out that the son played by the boy was the second oldest of York’s surviving issue but again it’s not really that important in the grand scheme of things, theatrical license is granted and it allows for more poignant drama given his ultimate fate. So the historical accuracy argument clearly has little merit, lest we need reminding that Shakespeare is fiction, and the notion that the audience couldn’t connect family trees unless everyone is the same colour is frankly insulting.
Indeed, by the 72nd time an identikit bearded homme d’un certain âge in generically dour clothing rushes onto the stage (there’s probably a drinking game in there, a shot for every time a place in England is followed by an utterance – how now Suffolk, what news Exeter, ‘sup Weston-Super-Mare…) you’ll probably be wishing for some more obvious clues to distinguish the endless rollcall of passing noblemen. A friend quipped that the historical accuracy Nunn is reaching for is actually of the early 60s when Peter Hall and John Barton originally staged these adaptations and one is tempted to find some truth in that…
There is no pretending that diversity and equality at large are easy issues, achieving them is problematic and thorny but requires effort from all of us (do check out Act For Change’s Danny Lee Wynter’s response for the one and this brilliant interview with the stars of Suffragette for the other). It must be said that Nunn has previously done much good work in the field of diversity but here he has dropped the ball, particularly in the clumsy way he’s tried to Nunns-plain it away, showing that when left to its own devices, the old guard’s inclination towards much-needed change is too often unacceptably non-existent.
Now that’s off my chest, to The Wars of the Roses themselves. Adapted by John Barton for the RSC in 1963, The Wars of the Roses compresses Shakespeare’s first historical tetralogy – the three Henry VI plays and Richard III – into three plays – Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III – which can be watched in a number of ways, including the entire trilogy on the same day. Nunn has described this as the original boxset but the joy of boxset bingeing is that you can wear your pyjamas and press pause whenever you want (which is me saying that I went on three different evenings instead).
The opportunity that The Wars of the Roses gives you is to really take the long view on the dynastic powerplays of the Houses of Lancaster and York, follow the 60 or so years of constant conflict, crown-swapping, curses and child-killing in one dramatic sweep. And in two key ways, it does achieve that. Margaret of Anjou emerges as a real powerhouse of a role, a forcefully totemic figure in the face of her husband’s (Henry VI) ineffectual reign, her rise and fall stretching over the course of the full trilogy. And it’s fascinating to see Richard of Gloucester’s backstory, the twisted family dynamic that haunted and shaped him, the battle exploits that made him a leader able to become Richard III.
As Margaret, Joely Richardson is interesting casting. Her somewhat brittle quality lends itself well to the flashes of ferocity that come as she realises how hapless her Henry is (a solid Alex Waldmann), and of fearless leadership as she assumes the mantle of warrior queen in igniting conflict with York and there’s a thrill to see her as the aged prophetess of the final part, very much channeling her mother Vanessa Redgrave. She doesn’t quite have the verse-speaking gravitas to elevate the role to the epic though, especially in the face of sensational work by Alexandra Gilbreath whose distraught Queen Elizabeth offers the trilogy’s most vibrant interpretation and emotionally affecting performance.
Robert Sheehan’s Richard III is also good, despite a leg brace, arm in a sling and hunch, he makes a convincing overcompensating young man, always missing out on a hug from his mother but a fierce force on the battlefield with some really quite exciting swordplay (kudos to fight director Malcolm Ranson). And having witnessed the burden of embattled kingship on the unwilling Henry VI and his own brother Edward IV (played with bustling energy by Kåre Conradi), Sheehan skilfully shows these pernicious pressures of on even this most Machiavellian of monarchs.
I very much enjoyed seeing musical theatre stalwart Michael Xavier prove his straight acting chops as the highly charismatic Suffolk too but there’s no doubting that there are occasional lulls – over nine hours how could there not be – and there are points when the endless procession of battles and allegiance-shifting nobles becomes a little wearying. Nunn’s staging is very traditional and Mark Friend’s set design from John Napier’s concept holds little surprise though it utilises the space of the theatre well, there’s just little real theatrical invention at work here, more moments like the full company speaking the prologue are needed to raise the production from simply being special for being a marathon.