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A magnificent seven

The Guardian, 21st December 1987, John Ezard

For a while they looked like rewriting English history. Richard III’s hump was delivered to the theatre fitted to his foe Richmond’s armour. Sir Piers of Exton’s gun misfired on the first night of ‘Richard II’, so that the martyred poetical king was unprecedentedly on the verge of winning his death cell fight.

It was, if you were backstage with the English Shakespeare Company, a close-run thing. But the hump was refitted; and production assistant Titus Grant’s months of poring over lists of stage props was vindicated. He had another loaded gun ready in the wings. The murderer mimed the shot and Richard (Michael Pennington) toppled with what in a less commanding actor would have been gratitude.

The king-size saga, nicknamed ‘At Last the 1399-1603 Show’ and publicised in more desperate moments as “rather like Dynasty set in the Middle Ages”, was finally launched on its long road. If you’d been in front of house that night in Bath two weeks ago, you’d hardly have noticed problems. The biggest, most against-the-odds Shakespearean tour mounted in modern times got its Bard-starved audience’s juices flowing almost as soon as started.

The cast got fetched back for an extra ovation. Regional drama critics wrote of an equal triumph for Pennington and a company with exceptional strength in depth. The Theatre Royal management and the Allied Irish Bank, the company’s second biggest sponsor after the Arts Council, threw celebratory parties. But almost everybody went easy on the drink. “We all know there’s yet more of the mountain to climb tomorrow,” said Ted Irwin, production manager.

The mountain is the complete seven-play Wars of the Roses, Shakespeare’s panorama of English History from Richard II to Henry Vii; 21 ½ hours of Bard. Thirty years ago Kenneth Tynan called the two ‘Henry IV’ plays “the twin summits of his achievement, great public plays in which a whole nation is under scrutiny and on trial.”

Tynan went on, “More than anything else in our drama, they deserve the name of epic… The odd irregular rhythms wherein societies die and are reborn are captured as no playwright before or since has captured them.” Nobody in the ESC doubts that, had he seen all the plays together, he would have extended that fervour to the entire cycle – and this is the spirit in which it is being played.

After watching the ‘Richard II’ first night, Paul Brennen, the young actor who four nights later was to make his debut as Henry VI, mourning impotently over carnage, said, “It’s so exciting to see the king who wrecked England, the man who first created the conditions my character inherits.”

The Roses is being revived for the first time in 20 years and performed in full for the first time outside Stratford-on-Avon, where the Royal Shakespeare Company houses John Barton’s pioneer staging of the plays in sequence under the title. Barton’s edited version for the RSC added 1,400 lines of his own. The ESC’s founder-chieftains Pennington and Michael Bogdanov, who does the directing, have added “a few hundred” of their own but they’re not saying which.

Only part of the Barton version transferred from Stratford to London. The ESC version is taking a marathon 18 months to tour 11 English towns and cities – in many of which good stage Shakespeare has become as rare as truffles – as well as Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Germany, Belgium, Holland and Ireland. It won’t hit London’s Old Vic until spring, 1989.

Nothing quite like it has been attempted in the regions since the days of Henry Irving. It travels in four container lorries 46 feet long, carrying seven tonnes: as bulky as the touring production of ‘Evita’. Early in its London rehearsals this autumn, I saw its first prop list: one British Rail timetable (£3.50), one pair of handcuffs (£10.95). That has grown to 2,000 props, as many as the RSC’s Les Miserables. The list now includes four severed heads (£50 each). There was supposed to be a fifth but the budget wouldn’t stretch.

And that is where the comparisons of scale and lavishness with the RSC collapse. In Bath, six women – “including two whom we can’t really afford”, Ted Irwin said – were busy full-time keeping 600 costumes washed in the cramped back-stage. “Our entire team is spending its time humping costumes from A to B without a moment to do any alterations. It’s an absolute nightmare,” said Stephanie Howard, costume designer.

“Because we’re – not to put too fine a point on it – short of a few bob, the only costume item not shared by the whole company is shoes, for fear of verrucas,” said Ted Irwin. Bogdanov said that if actors were to have individual costumes, the RSC or National norm, he’d need 1,200. As it is the motifs of the production include black frock coats and army surplus shop gear, in which World War One ammunition boxes mingle with Falklands task force-style camouflage jackets. Bogdanov bought tablecloths in from home to help furnish Falstaff’s tavern.

Each of the 25 actors plays or understudies up to 30 or 40 parts. In top of the six main roles – Richard II, Prince Hal, Henry V, Buckingham in ‘Richard III’ and Jack Cade and the father who kills his son in battle in ‘Henry VI’ – Pennington, typically, is understudying all five comic recruits (“which is great fun”) in ‘Henry IV Part II, a murderer in ‘Richard III’ and two other parts.

The decision to risk the full Roses cycle followed the company’s first, garlanded British and international tour with the two ‘Henry IV’ plays and ‘Henry V’ last year and earlier this year. It played to 70 per cent full houses, almost broke even, and was viewed as a model enterprise by the British Council. But Bogdanov said in a bad moment early on that they must be “barmy” to try to rehearse and technically prepare three plays in seven weeks.

Reminded of this in Bath, Pennington said wryly, “Insanity develops with the years.” This time they rehearsed seven plays in 13 weeks, distracted by offstage tragedy. Their fine Bolingbroke and Pistol (John Price), a lynchpin of the first tour, died of a brain haemorrhage during rehearsals. “I felt more under pressure than I have ever done,” Bogdanov said. John Castle stepped in and mastered a total of five parts in six weeks. Incredibly, the Bath first nights were only the third time the cast had performed a complete run through of each play.

For Pennington it was a further jump in a deep-seated career decision he took six years ago. He abandoned a race with Jeremy Irons to star in the film ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’ in favour of doing a neo-romantic ‘Hamlet’ for John Barton and the RSC at Stratford. And to stay with the ESC this year, he dropped out of the running to play – for a six-figure fee – Lord Olivier in a biographical American mini-series.

A few months ago he was talking careers and money over lunch with old Stratford colleagues from the 1970s. David Jones, it turned out, was going to direct a film with Robert DeNiro. Mike Gwilym was in the mini-series ‘Peter the Great’. Norman Rodway was about to do ‘The Bretts’ in television. “I looked at myself,” Pennington said, “and thought – Christ, you’re still trying to do ‘Henry IV Part II’ in Sunderland and get a cast together for it. Slightly depressing in a way.

“People say to me, ‘You must be unworldly, never going where the money is.’ I’m a bit fearful of putting myself out of circulation for as long as this. It’s a bit late in the day to be playing Prince Hal at 43. But I know that if I hadn’t done ‘Richard II’ now I would probably never have done it.”

For Bogdanov, the financial arithmetic has sad implications. They have £250,000 from the Arts council, £150,000 from the Allied Irish Bank and undisclosed sums from the Mirvishes at the Old Vic and the British Council. They have a fine critical reputation and good advance bookings. Yet all that leaves them up against the wall, with a £150,000 shortfall on costs which only foreign touring can bridge.

That’s one reason why the touring road ahead of the 1399-1603 show is so very long. But bookings have brought one morale-booster. Last year theatre managers asked, ‘Who’s your Falstaff and is he big on television?’. Bogdanov said “They really wanted Ronnie Barker. This year they didn’t ask (its Barry Stanton)”. Bogdanov and Pennington are beginning to dare to think that the company may become a star.

And artistically, as Bogdanov says with Tynan’s fervour, there’s an excitement of incarnating a 21-hour meditation on “the recurrent theme of a divided nation; on the problem of the Irish, the Welsh, the Scots and the North; on the question of how, in fact, Westminster rules, something which has been and is anathema to a group of islands which are still basically tribal.”

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