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The Battle of the Bards

The Listener, 12th January 1989, Robert Gore-Langton

The winter of discontent to about to take hold with a vengeance. Robert Gore-Langton studies the invasion of the History Plays – and talks to the English Shakespeare Company’s fearless Michael Pennington about his irreverent, updated Wars of the Roses.

London will soon be awash with battles, feuding, medieval bishops, knights, nobles, the kings and conference tables of Shakespeare’s history Plays. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and the English Shakespeare Company (ESC) have come up with all-day marathons. The West End is fielding Derek Jacobi as Richard III to follow up his Richard II. There’s even a new movie version of ‘Henry V’ in the can (starring, and directed by, Kenneth Branagh), scheduled for release in the autumn. Some argue that the spate of histories is a coincidence – others that a heightened sense of soap has fashioned a new taste for such serial dramas.

From the point of view of the companies, two major history cycles has to be bad programming. There is only so much box-office mileage in the obscurer plays, especially the three parts of ‘Henry VI’ – the existence of which most theatregoers are no more than vaguely aware. The RSC transfers its show ‘The Plantagenets’ (as the company has collectively titles things) to the Barbican, not long after the ESC’s package (called the ‘Wars of the Roses’, an old RSC name) rolls up at the Old Vic. The RSC is pitching for cult-show status, while the ESC arrives with glowing testimonials dating from the start of its trip round England in 1985.

English theatre managements seldom take much notice of other people’s programming, and the planning of new seasons tends to be done in a vacuum. With a resolute classicist running the Old Vic, the Royal Court doing occasional revivals, and the National Theatre experimenting with yet more Shakespeare, there is a case to be made for production quotas on the more overworked masterpieces. Witness the absurdity of five major ‘Tempests’ last year.

The RSC can be exempted from worrying about rival plans as far as Shakespeare is concerned, and it’s more than ten years since it last produced the ‘Henry VI’ trilogy. At the same time, the ESC can claim to have sparked off the current Histories trend, and the company was in any case born to tour. It’s ‘Henry IV’ and ‘V’ cycle has recently been augmented by the Richard plays and the ‘Henry VIs’, to the point where it now showcases all the kingly chronicles in a seven-play road show (with the three parts of ‘Henry VI’, as in ‘The Plantagenets’, reprocessed into two).

Having only had two productions of the ‘Henry VI’ plays this century, Londoners are suddenly landed with two whole Saturdays of them within one mile and a few weeks of each other. What has emerged is fascinating for the divergence in styles. The RSC production, which might be subtitled ‘A Family Affair’, is bloody but plush – a medieval saga of a country divided. The ESC version is a scruffy, irreverent and updated look at war, imperialism and patriotism. “’Ere we go, ‘ere we go” is more the flavour here.

The English Shakespeare Company is the brainchild of ‘wildcat’ director Michael Bogdanov and actor Michael Pennington, a former leading light at the RSC. Both had previously worked together at the National. “The ESC came out of a drink,” says Pennington in the company’s tiny office off Oxford Street. “We thought of a project, and suddenly the money was there – our bluff was called.”

Three years later, and the company is still without any settled future, funded instead on a project-by-project basis with sponsorship from Allied Irish Bank. “But don’t forget that we are at liberty to stop,” insists Pennington. “We could wind it up at any time. The ESC was formed to solve the touring conundrum, which we’ve done with some style. What we don’t feel is that we have to go on and on.”

While the RSC now tours regularly, companies such as Prospect and Compass were, prior to the ESC, the only hope for big-scale productions to reach the regional reps – where, with few exceptions, dull, set-book efforts have become the norm. The ESC’s portable theatre is the essence of its artistic creed, involving a broad populist assault on the plays, with the minimum of props, design concepts ranging from Quality Street uniforms to flak jackets and machine-guns, plus a do-as-we-please approach when it comes to rearrangement of the texts.

Pennington, who describes himself as “a puritan dressed in circus clothes”, takes the view that there is a clear gap for this sort of ultra-accessible Shakespeare. Thus, Joan of Arc in ‘Henry VI’ is ‘necklaced’ with a petrol-soaked tyre; Great War trench scenes are juxtaposed with domestic anarchy led by lager-lout jack Cade; while Richard III operates a computer, has a Yorkshire accent, and dispenses with “My kingdom for a horse!” (the army is motorised).

“It’s dangerous,” Pennington admits. “But Michael Bogdanov has spent 20 years developing a modernist approach, and all the choices are carefully made. If we have an idea for the play, then it is derived from the text.” In rough terms, the visual style of the cycle covers a period from Georgian England through to the present – a span paralleled in the dramatic time of the texts.

These methods score best on the better histories. The brilliant work on the ‘Henry IV’ and ‘V’ plays, particularly in the Eastcheap and Agincourt scenes, is sapped by the narrative sprawl of the three-into-two ‘Henry VI’. At the tour’s stop in Plymouth, exhaustion was evident, with the great dramatic climaxes inspiring no peaks of acting. The RSC version, despite its awful wigs, uneven casting and the drastic editing that renders everything ‘Jackanory’-simple, still contains some fine performances and a sense of a shared epic voyage.

Where the ESC succeeds is in creating an energy that has a direct appeal, and this emerges clearly in ‘Richard III’. For all the provocative manhandling of the text, proceedings are dominated by Andrew Jarvis’s all-out performance as Richard. The part of the self-delighting ironist, with seemingly little concern for the legend attached to the role and the hump.

The tour has proved hugely successful. Pennington would never apologise for the doctoring of texts and fancy updating: “In order to make a young audience aware that the plays are about them and their lives, we may occasionally bend over and underline a point three times. I’m prepared to be populist about this. But the verse is well spoken, and there’s a profound regard for the language.” The language that’s left in, he means.

Is the ESC, though, anything more than Pennington and Bogdanov? The former is vehement in defending the outfit, which he created in order to savour some of the company excitement that he felt left the RSC after the golden mid-seventies. The ESC sports some experienced actors, but no stars. “I like to think there’s a classical ensemble we have created which no longer depends on Michael or me,” says Pennington.

The company is now looking for another project and another director. Bogdanov is in Hamburg as intendant at the Schauspielhaus, and Pennington, steeped in management, is scouting for someone to take over (no names are disclosed). He himself will go into the open market as an actor. The company’s future is uncertain, funding is in the air, but whomever is approached will be expected to work within, as Pennington puts it, “the ESC’s tradition of genial iconoclasm”.

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