The War of the Roses | Sydney Theatre Company

The War of the Roses | Sydney Theatre CompanyLeft - Hayley McElhinney, Pamela Rabe and Luke Mullins. Cover - Cate Blanchett. Photos - Tania Kelley


For some, the prospect of committing ten hours to Shakespeare’s bloody conflicts over the English throne is an exciting prospect, for others, a daunting one. If approached in the right frame of mind, this impressive, generally absorbing production will fly past in what seems like half that time. You can elect to watch the two four hour segments on different days as Part 1 and Part 2, yet there is something especially satisfying about taking it all in as one powerful marathon of bloodstained chaos. Watching the two halves consecutively is recommended for those with the stamina.

The special quality one gets from the marathon experience is an enhanced sense of the story’s overarching continuity, seeing the ongoing characters who carry over from one play to the next, giving a continuous rather than episodic view of the history portrayed. Which is, after all, the raison d’être of this production.

Tom Wright and director Benedict Andrews’ script for The War of the Roses is a conflation of eight separate Shakespeare plays: Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. Much as it may sound like a strange thing to say of a production that spans ten hours, Wright and Andrews’ text is actually a drastically pared-down version of a much larger body of work - Shakespeare’s two tetralogies concerning the civil conflict over the English crown.

For those intimately familiar with these texts, this hack-and-slash approach may seem a little jarring (the rebel Jack Cade from Henry VI pt.2 is sorely missed), but for general audiences and those devotees willing to be a bit flexible it is a highly effective truncation that includes some of Shakespeare’s lesser-performed plays.

Divided into four acts, each quarter of the show has a distinct identity with its own approach to design and stagecraft. There are, however, common elements throughout, and the overall production has a loosely-unified but identifiable style. Indeed, the “star” of this production, for good or ill, is not so much the epic text or even the wonderful cast, but rather the approach of director Benedict Andrews, fast becoming (some would say he already is) one of our most notable directors. A bit like Barrie Kosky before him, Andrews has developed a reputation for such striking, unusual design concepts and unconventional, often confronting staging that any given individual’s response to the piece will predominantly hinge on whether or not they embrace his idiosyncratic treatment of the material.

Without giving too much away, here is an outline of what you can expect from this ambitious production:

Part 1, Act One is Richard II, staged with the cast standing to attention and almost entirely motionless for the better part of its first hour, amidst a colossal, unending snowfall of glittering gold foil confetti. It is a stunning visual (albeit apparently headache-inducing for some), with the golden torrent apparently symbolising an age of courtly civility and royal pomp that is about to give way to a century of dynastic war, and traces of the golden foil reappear in subsequent acts in references to the crowning of kings.

This extreme lack of movement may seem bizarre at first, yet it mirrors the formality of the language in one of Shakespeare’s most verse-heavy plays. The performances are excellent, and mitigate against the initial lack of physical action, with a memorable turn by “guest artist” Cate Blanchett in the title role. Her haughty, self-centred portayal of the rather unworldly king is a delight, strongly supported by the bellicose Steve Le Marquand, John Gaden in two roles (the first of many), and Robert Menzies as Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, monarch for the next act.

Act Two condenses both parts of Henry IV and takes on a grimy rock and roll theme, featuring an entirely stripped-back stage (indeed, the entire production uses Sydney Theatre’s stage completely bare with no background scenery whatsoever) on which the grim and violent next installment of the story takes place. Menzies returns as conscience-troubled King Henry IV, but as those familiar with the plays will know, this is primarily the story of Prince Hal, later to be Henry V. We see his self-abasement in truncated but extremely graphic detail as he avoids his royal responsibilities by consorting with lowlifes, namely reprobate knight Sir John Falstaff, one of the Bard’s most beloved characters. John Gaden reprises the role (after a fashion, having memorably played it quite differently a decade earlier for Bell Shakespeare) with relish, proving an audience favourite. Inevitably though, conflict looms and the bloody hand of war breaks out with some strange and startling imagery as a lone musician (Stefan Gregory), his back to us, strums an electric guitar as score to the entire act.

After a touching scene of reconciliation with his father, the wastrel turned soldier Hal ascends to kingship just as the story transitions to a different play. Henry V is the most radically compressed of all the texts in The War of the Roses, and while this may offend the sensibilities of some, it is an understandable necessity. Not only would a fuller treatment disrupt this production’s four-act structure, but the play is probably the one with which people are the most familiar. More the point, however, Henry V actually has the least direct relevance to the overarching war between the houses of Lancaster and York, as it represents a brief period of stability from this dynastic strife. Rather than exclude it altogether and break the narrative chain, Wright and Andrews have broken it down into a series of highlights focused on the king himself, and it works surprisingly well. Ewen Leslie does a good job as the fluid-stained Prince Hal and his matured, blood-soaked Henry V, with an interesting, emotional take on this changeable, complex character.

After the two-hour break between sessions, Part 2 Act One whittles down the three installments of Henry VI (themselves sometimes performed in a less dramatically abridged form under similar “War of the Roses” titles), with its convoluted tale of the next phase of internecine conflict over the crown. This was perhaps the least successful quarter of the production, with an uninteresting design and an rather awkward cut of the text which, despite the use of content-demarking surtitles, seems to jump from scene to scene with little sense of flow or unifying narrative. The representation of many from these warring families as childish, bullying youths didn’t quite work either, although it did serve to introduce Pamela Rabe’s portrayal of Richard, later to become the infamously devious king.

Marta Dusseldorp delivers an appropriately bitchy Queen Margaret, a part she would continue to good effect in the final act, and Gaden and Le Marquand once again turn in excellent work in new roles, as does the always splendid Peter Carroll. The act’s signature piece of stagecraft, in which the murdered characters are sprayed by the other actors spitting torrents of stage blood swigged from plastic bottles, followed by dustings of flour, elicited mixed reactions from the crowd. It was powerful imagery in theory, but the effect oft-times proved awkwardly comical.

The marathon production culminates in Part 2 Act Two with the story neatly slipstreaming into Richard III. Although an improvement over the previous quarter, this final segment of the show was also a little disappointing in its unevenness. This closing chapter suffers from funereal pacing, having been directed with a sense of desolation that, while thematically appropriate, in execution is perhaps a poor choice for the likely fatigued audience. With a downbeat design featuring a children’s playground, the set is once again coated by a continuous shower of confetti, although this time of a gray variety that could be snow or ash, evoking an apocalyptic quality for the winter of Richard’s discontent, or rather, the devastation of England itself.

Thus bookending the effect at the beginning of the production, the saga continues though its final bleak act, elevated by Rabe’s offbeat, wickedly endearing performance as Richard. It is certainly not the arch, silver-tongued sophisticate that one might have expected from her, but rather an evolution of the snarling, cruel youth of the previous play. Equal parts sociopath and machiavel, Rabe’s Richard is shabby, brilliant, impulsive, conniving, bestial and disarmingly funny, developing a palpable rapport with the audience through her many asides and soliloquies. Eschewing traditional portrayals of the character’s limp and deformities, Rabe occasionally delivers mocking impressions of what such a performance could have been, as though revelling in her (his) inner freak.

The War of the Roses is the final production for the STC’s Actor’s Company, a permanent ensemble started three years ago under previous Artistic Director Robyn Nevin and axed by her replacements Blanchett and Andrew Upton. Having been a somewhat controversial endeavour applauded by some and derided by others within and without the industry, in some ways this production seems a fitting swansong. Like the ensemble itself, it has many undeniable strengths but seems likely to be polarising, as some will be impressed by Andrews’ bold, highly symbolic direction while it may strike others as pretentious. Similarly, the extreme compression of Shakespeare’s many works could well be alternately viewed as an inspired, epic endeavour or as a poorly-executed hodgepodge.

For myself, it was a highly enjoyable and very satisfying theatrical experience that occasionally fell somewhat short. I found the distribution of roles at times confounding – e.g. John Gaden plays a significant part in each act while Amber McMahon barely speaks until the final segment - but the performances were nevertheless excellent, one and all. The varied staging and design concepts ranged from being tremendously impressive to relatively underwhelming, and the momentum of the overall piece seemed to falter at some points in Part 2. On the whole it was a very powerful, affecting show that had the rare ability to convey a vast historical scope in highly personal, immediate terms, and a rare opportunity to see this material given such an engrossing treatment.

Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival and Perth International Arts Festival present the STC Actors Company in
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews

Directed by Benedict Andrews

Sydney Festival
Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay
5 January – 14 February 14 2009 (Opening 14 January)
Bookings: Sydney Theatre Company 02 9250 1777 or Ticketek 1300 888 412

Perth International Arts Festival
His Majesty’s Theatre
27 February – 8 March 2009 (Opening: 27 February)
Bookings: 08 9484 1133

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