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The Wars of the Roses

Richard II

Bath and West Evening Chronicle, 9th December 1987, Helen Emery

‘Richard II’ is not the easiest of Shakespeare roles to play, but Michael Pennington triumphs as the usurped king in the first of the history cycle plays by the English Shakespeare Company in Bath over the next fortnight.

Pennington is the pivot of this masterpiece, portraying in convincing detail the character of Richard through petulant vanity, splendid sarcasm to crushed king.

John Castle adds to the overall quality of the performance with his strong portrayal of Henry Bolingbroke – a man torn between personal ambition and respect for the divine right of kings, which he overthrows.

‘Richard II’ is probably the most lyrical of Shakespeare’s history plays, drawing its power from verse rather than action.

However, director Michael Bogdanov creates some memorable scenes to thoughtfully complement the play’s themes. Most striking is the contrast between Richard II’s colourful court and the new king’s formal grey. Music is also cleverly used to link scenes.

The strength of the supporting cast bodes well for the rest of The Wars of the Roses cycle, in which 25 actors play a total of 500 parts. The cycle of seven plays runs until Saturday December 19th.

Henry IV Part I

Evening Post, 10th December 1987, David Harrison

If you can only manage one of ‘The Wars of the Roses’ cycle at Bath this month then this is the one to go for.

It has four first-rate principals, a well-developed sense of humour, lots of action and a crisp narrative style.

The ESC specialises in putting the story first, letting it tell itself by natural momentum and without artifice.

The scenes in the Boar’s Head Tavern are brilliantly staged, with a crackling interplay between Falstaff and Hal which is thrilling to watch.

Barry Stanton has an unenviable job to follow John Woodvine in the role of the fat knight. But he is overwhelmingly good.

He generates an air of dissolute jollity and amiable roguery with a simple shake of his stomach. And he relishes his marvellous lines the way Falstaff would have tackled a gallon of sack – with unashamed gusto and unembarrassed enjoyment.

Michael Pennington’s Prince Hal is the perfect counterpoint to Falstaff’s vulgar foolishness, while showing hints of the strong prince he becomes in tonight’s Part Two.

Chris Hunter’s Hotspur is a ferocious, fiery characterisation of a hot-blooded youth more on an adventure than fighting for a crown.

John Castle’s sombre Henry IV recreates the frosty dignity beneath the burden of state first shown in Monday’s ‘Richard II’.

The whole production fizzles with life and excitement and it gives great pleasure to see how well it follows on from ‘Richard II’. And that, of course, is one of the points of the exercise.

Henry IV Part II

Bath and West Evening Chronicle, 11th December 1987, Zita Adamson

Michael Pennington’s transformation from the hotheaded young Prince Hal to a worthy King of England is masterly.

As he sits with his dying father we sob with him. Then we watch awe-struck as he shoulders the cares of the crown and prepares himself for the rejection of the amusing but morally rotten Falstaff.

The last powerful glimpse of Falstaff’s enormous behind wobbling pitifully to prison will be a lasting memory with me.

But this play is not just about kings and courtiers and the civil war which troubles England.

Shakespeare gives affectionate treatment and some great comic lines to the rural squires Robert Shallow (Clyde Pollitt) and his cousin Silence (Phillip Bowen) as they busy themselves with their farmyard affairs.

I urge you to blow all the money you’ve been saving up for Christmas presents on seeing as much of this history cycle as you can.

Henry V

Evening Post, 12th December 1987, David Harrison

The great saga rolls on and Henry V, one-time roisterer in the stews of London, is now aiming for the throne of France.

This is one of Shakespeare’s more jingoistic plays, full of stirring stuff about the glories of being English and the pleasures of dying for one’s country.

Not that many do, unless they are French, of course. The final toll after Agincourt is one of Shakespeare’s greatest inventions – 25 English slain to 10,000 foreigners.

Yet the strength if the whole English Shakespeare Wars of the Roses series so far is encapsulated in ‘Henry V’.

The jingoism is parodied and made less offensive by picturing the English as a bunch of football hooligans off to the Continent for a match, while the French are white-suited, elegant Impressionist paintings.

The absolute clarity of the text and the visual excitement of the staging allows Michael Pennington’s Henry to make his famous battle speeches credible.

But there is more emphasis on scenes like his unsuccessful efforts to rally his dispirited troops before Agincourt.

This realistic approach is compellingly successful and underscores yet again the relevance of the Michael Bogdanov approach to the series.

The cast is superb, from Michael Pennington’s human and sensitive Henry to the cynical French nobles played with bitter humour by Chris Hunter and Hugh Sullivan.

Bogdanov’s direction is never less than illuminating.

Henry IV House of Lancaster

Evening Post, 15th December 1987, David Harrison

Henry V is dead and England has a young and weak king.

In France, Joan of Arc is wrecking havoc in England’s hard-won territory, while the barons of England are preparing for civil war.

‘Henry VI’ is densely packed with families, wars, politics and feuds. Happily most of the confusing sub-plots and unimportant characters have been cut in this merger of Part One and some of Part Two.

This seamless pruning leaves a clear thread running through the tale, one which links ‘Henry V’ with ‘Richard III’.

It is obvious why England is losing its French properties, why Henry VI was the worst possible king at a time when strength was vital, and why the War of the Roses was inevitable.

Michael Bogdanov’s production offers such a clear guide through the maze that the most confusing aspect is the visual similarity between the Kings of England and France, which leads to considerable bafflement in the opening scenes.

The stage fights are very exciting and vividly choreographed and there are plenty of them in the first half.

Paul Brennen’s Henry VI is necessarily over-shadowed by the barons, with John Castle’s grimly understated York, forming a neat counter-point to Siôn Probert’s sardonic Somerset.

Mary Rutherford combines mysticism with common sense as a very down to earth Joan of Arc, while June Watson offers a splendid termagant as the unfaithful Queen Margaret.

The story continues tonight with the War of the Roses in another adaptation culled from Part Two and Part Three. It makes compelling viewing.

Henry VI House of York

Evening Post, 16th December 1987, David Harrison

Henry VI Part Two is real Shakespearean blood and thunder.

Heads are lopped at the least opportunity, most of the principals get slaughtered bloodily, and treachery and opportunism abound.

The story begins with the Duke of York’s return to fight for the crown, currently held by the Lancastrian sympathiser Henry VI, who really wants to be a monk.

From there, the War of the Roses begins in earnest, ending with Edward IV on the throne, but with Richard III-to-be looming menacingly in the background.

Once again, the emphasis of the production is on getting across the main historical thread with few distractions from irritating and unnecessary sub-plots.

The merger between Shakespeare’s original Parts Two and Three into one coherent play has been flawlessly done.

The large number of battles showed signs of uneasiness last night, as well they might with so many sharp weapons being waved around, but that will pass with time.

What impressed more was Michael Pennington’s rebel rousing Jack Cade, Paul Brennen’s gentle Henry, a vigorous and assertive Queen from June Watson, and Michael Cronin as the betrayed Warwick the King-maker.

But, most of all, Andrew Jarvis’ Richard, Duke of York, who tonight becomes Richard III, sowed the seeds of what should be a truly memorable performance with a portrayal of cold, studied malevolence and brutal bloodlust.

A brilliant realisation of a difficult, sprawling play which makes thrilling sense of medieval power politics.

Richard III

Evening Post, 17th December 1987, David Harrison

The circle is closed, the great venture completed, the captains and the kings depart.

With the death of Richard III on Bosworth Field, the long series of bloody struggles for the crown of England are over.

So too is the first complete cycle of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses plays, seen for the first time outside Stratford.

It has been a deeply rewarding, once in a life-time experience following the course of English history through Shakespeare’s admittedly biased eyes.

Although this production is in modern dress, the final battle between Richmond and Richard is in full armour with heavy broadswords. Like two great dinosaurs, they circle each other and with the fall of Richard their day is done.

Again, as in all the plays in the cycle, the text is paramount and nothing is allowed to get in the way of the story.

There is even a useful opening summary of what has gone before to help newcomers sort out the convoluted family loyalties on either side.

Andrew Jarvis plays Richard as a man only just on this side of insanity. His murders are casual and, once committed, easily forgotten.

His Richard is power hungry to the point of obsession. He is driven constantly forward by a demonic urge to succeed.

It is a tense and very personal view but not a complex one. Michael Bogdanov’s devotion to accessibility scarcely permits much psychological insight and this Richard is more of a pathological thug than a man torn by strange and unfulfilled desires.

But the whole production is a worthy ending to a project of such complexity and vision that few people could even conceive touring it.

Try to see’ Henry V’ on Friday or the omnibus of’ Henry VI’ and ’Richard III’ on Saturday if you don’t want to miss a unique landmark in English theatre which will never be forgotten.

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