What the hell is WRONG with me? I hate EVERYTHING, and here I am being embarrassingly enthusiastic about four things in a row? What have I enjoyed lately, you ask? Why, only the RSC’s production of Shakespeare’s History Cycle at the Roundhouse in London, in chronological order (so Richard II, Henry IV parts 1&2, Henry V, Henry VI 1,2&3, and Richard III). Eight entirely uncut plays, and on two separate occasions three plays in one day.
Oh yeah. Let it never be said that I is not one cultured, hi-brow motherf*cker.
Three uncut plays in one day is a lot. Thirteen hours or more in the theatre and surrounds, maybe eight hours in the chair. If they hadn’t been good it could’ve been pretty unpleasant. If they’d been bad it could’ve been hellish.
But, on the whole, they were amazing.
Stunning acting – I’ve rarely seen it look so natural, fluid and involving, possibly because these actors have been virtually living together for the past six years or so, and performing these plays to audiences for a good part of that time. It’s a world away from a couple of actors drily spouting the lines at each other while others stand stiffly round and watch. The familiarity with the verse, the drama in the gestures and the glances, the small responses of onlookers, all make it very easy to understand.
Truly incredible staging, in the main – performed in the round, but with gangways at the front as well as the back so that there is an effortless flow to the movement of actors on and off stage. There’s also a lot of rope-work – guys glide in from above, dangle from straps, burst up from below. The entire French court, harpsichord and all, at one point hang languidly suspended above the stage from trapezes. I make it sound gimmicky, but believe me it ain’t, I’ve seen enough gimmicky Shakespeare (the tap-dancing production of Romeo and Juliet will stick particularly in my mind until my dying day, and not in a good way) and this was the opposite. There was always a point, a reference in the text, and in the main it was very stripped back, very simple – a huge amount was achieved with a bit of smoke and some clever lighting, some feathers drifting down from above or some other gentle touch. Never the slightest sense of being embarrassed by the text, of wanting to jazz it up for the modern audience.
Many breathtaking moments, particularly in the Henry VIs – Bedford opening up the stage to let the ghost of Henry V rise from its grave to lead the charge. Edward IV sweeping on, newly crowned, to talk of happy futures, blood leaking from his long white gown and leaving a slick across the floor. Jack Cade hanging upside down among his carnival of bloody followers to pass sentence on anyone who can write. The Henry VIs were particularly excellent – although they’re usually thought of as minor works and not often performed – there was something about the scattergun, quickfire, ensemble nature of them that worked particularly well with the company and the fluid way it was staged.
If one was in a churlish frame of mind (which, of course, I usually am) one could point to a couple of weaknesses – I’m partial to a bit of David Warner (I mean, come on, he was Sark in Tron, Gul Madred in Star Trek NG, and – one of my favourite roles of all time – the voice of Jon Irenicus in Baldur’s Gate II for chrissakes), but he’s a subtle sort of actor, and I felt he was a bit miscast as Falstaff. Henry IV 2 lagged a bit in places, but then it’s probably the poorest of the eight plays, a bit of a sequel for sequel’s sake, perhaps, looking like a rerun of the greatest hits of Henry IV 1, but with less of the excitement and none of the novelty. Something I, as a fantasy author, can only whole-heartedly deplore.
The Richard III was slightly disappointing for me, as well. By no means bad, but they made an odd decision, after doing the other seven in largely medieval-cum-elizabethan style, to set that one firmly in modern, gangster-y dress, which suited the play well enough on its own but seemed to separate it from the rest of the cycle and render it more mundane, and on occasion maybe even just that little bit gimmicky. Jonathan Slinger had been brilliantly menacing as hunchbacked Gloucester in the Henry VIs, furious and charming by turns, but the Richard III seemed to be too much played for laughs, too rarely for real menace.
Details, though. On the whole it was a maginificent twenty or so hours of theatre, and definitely given an added depth by seeing the whole cycle more or less together in one piece, and with the same actors playing their characters throughout, resurfacing as ghosts, picking up echoes of old characters in new roles. No waiting a year between installments here. Ahem.
I could go on. But the chances are high that one or more of these apply to you:
a) don’t give a toss about Shakespeare.
b) don’t live in England, so have limited chance of seeing these productions.
c) since the run has nearly finished and the rest of it is sold out, can’t see it now even if you wanted to.
d) you are totally bored, and wondering when I’ll start bitching about my own reviews and cussing stuff off again. Soon, my friends, soon. No way can life stay THIS good for long.
Therefore I close.