In the lead up to the Sydney Theatre Company’s Perth season of The War of the Roses, the ensemble’s jubilation is growing. “There’s a whole range of reasons why there’s a lot of excitement about going over there,” says STC Associate Director Tom Wright, speaking to Australian Stage’s Sarah Wells from his Sydney office.
And that is hardly surprising, as not only will this season mark The Actor’s Company’s ultimate work together, and the first time STC has visited Perth in many years, but, continues Wright, “One third of the ensemble are West Australian and they’re coming home as well so there’s a palpable sense of anticipation about it.”
So what can Perth audiences expect to see when the production hits His Majesty’s Theatre as part of the Perth International Arts Festival on February 27? According to STC, they will be presented with an exploration of what it means to rule, to enact war, to take power and to lose power. According to national reviewers, they will be treated to a piece both pared-back and poetically rich.
Skipping over the traditional British Nationalism that quite naturally abounds in the theatrical spaces of Olivier or Branagh, Wright says he and co-adaptor/director Benedict Andrews see the plays, “more as being poems about society, so this is a more poetic, a more abstracted universe that we’ve created.”
So sometimes, he goes on, “there are certain speeches in this adaptation that don’t necessarily relate directly to the story, but do act as a sort of a poetic footnote to what’s happening.”
While Wright and Andrews have taken great pains to remain true to the eight original plays of Shakespeare’s cycle; says Wright, “I’ve kept it as close as I can to the ways those plays were published in the 17th century, it’s just that they are edited down,” there were some expectations of division amongst their audiences.
“It was to do with the business of reducing down so many hours of Shakespeare to just eight. The feeling was that people who are purists about Shakespeare who missed their favourite speech or didn’t like the way the histories had been bastardised. But also just the performance and the staging are discomforting, like there is some loud guitar music in the second act for instance, and things like that which traditionally people don’t like.” He goes on, “We wanted to serve a broad outline of the narrative; so the story has to be looked after so that the audience feel that there is a tangible narrative.”
Not even literary staple Sir John Falstaff is left to his own archetypal theatrical devices in this production. Says Wright, “To ask the question of what sort of king Henry V will be; what sort of father Henry IV is; is a big theme and we really honed down on that.” And to that end, he continues, “Falstaff is really only of interest in so far as he represents a kind of dissolute father a lot of men have in their lives, where they, in leaving their actual father, learn about adulthood from some other male.” So, much of the comic element of his persona has been removed. “It’s because we’re serving the longer haul. The War of the Roses is a whole so each of the plays is treated in terms of that whole.”
“The response has been very positive and people have been rhapsodic about it,” Wright says. And Falstaff fans shouldn’t be discouraged. The word is that John Gaden handles the role deftly and with relish, according to Australian Stage reviewer Jack Teiwes, and proves an audience favourite.
Wright continues, “There is a wide variety of familiarity and unfamiliarity. Many people know Henry V for instance, but hardly anyone has seen Henry VI part two.”
With Sydney audiences, Wright says, “Our more GP (general public) - oriented people have liked the first and last acts (Richard II and Richard III) because they resemble traditional plays more, whereas the more theatre literate or festival oriented like the second and third acts because they are more theatrically adventurous.”
And Perth will definitely be interesting, Wright says, “because we’re going from a brand new theatre here in Sydney to a very old Edwardian theatre in Perth, and we’ll see how the aesthetics of this production fit in an older auditorium.”
And, of course, it is The Actor’s Company’s final production. “This has been a really good company because it’s been really high-end; we’ve got some very fine Australian stage actors, like Pamela Rabe and Peter Carroll and John Gaden and Marta Dusseldorp, and this work is their culminating moment.”
STC’s The War of the Roses plays as part of the Sydney Festival at Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay until February 14, and as part of the Perth International Arts Festival at His Majesty’s Theatre February 27 – March 12.
Top Right - Tom Wright
Bottom Right - Cate Blanchett in STC's War of the Roses. Photo - Tania Kelley