Hi-Brow Heaven – The Histories

May 7th, 2008

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.

Posted in film and tv by Joe Abercrombie on May 7th, 2008. Tags:

13 comments so far

  • Elena says:

    What company was this? Not that I live in England, but…I’ve a passing acquaintance with Shakespeare (in text and performance) and am always interested to know more about the decisions people make in performance. When it’s done well, I mean.

    Lucky British Bastard (no offense intended, Mama A).

  • That sounds utterly amazing, and makes me wish whole heartedly that something like that would take place here (Ohio, USA). Not that there isn’t theater mind you, but, you have to be REALLY interested to sit through that many hours of Shakespeare and I can tell you that there aren’t that many people here who would/could manage an endurance test of that nature.

    If it’s not horribly rude, uncouth, and oh so american of me, do you mind telling me how much they were charging for tickets to that thing? I know decent theater tickets here for one show go for upwards of $100 (good seats, actual productions). I can’t imagine how much a marathon like that beast would cost…

    Anyway, have a good day, thanks for sharing.

  • Melmoth says:

    I’ve always loved Desmond Barrit as an actor: the way he plays comedy roles – being able to set the audience in to hysterics, all from the perfectly timed raising of an eyebrow – is just genius.

    I was lucky enough to see him as Falstaff when the Barb. was showing the This England – The Histories series of plays, and he was simply brilliant.

    I think the only play that I’ve probably enjoyed more is Mark Rylance’s production of The Golden Ass at the Globe, but that’s because Rylance is a God sent down from some other plane of existence to delight crowds. The way that man captivated the audience that night, well it’s cliché, but it was genuinely spine tingling.

    Not sure that I could manage a Shaksepearathon of the magnitude you undertook though, despite how much I love his works; you’ve quite the constitution, sir. Bravo!

  • elena,
    ’twas the grand-daddy of all Shakespeare companies, the RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company). They’re based in Stratford-on-Avon, but have been bringing stuff up to London for some time, originally to the Barbican theatre, but more recently to the Roundhouse, which is a recently refurbished train-shed, a really magnificent space.

    Yeah, this was a unique event even in London – I don’t know that they’ve ever been performed in one block by one company of actors in quite this way before.

    It is not horribly rude to ask the price. Tickets were a healthily Arts-Council-subsidised £25 each, which comes to $3,582 at current rate of exchange. A ha ha. But seriously, £200 for the whole lot of eight plays, an absolute bargain for anything, let alone considering the stellar quality. I believe 16-25 year olds could get some tickets for £5. You gotta love the Arts Council.

    Ah, I saw those Henry IV 1&2s at the Barbican as well! But I can go you one better, cos I saw Robert Stevens doing Falstaff at Stratford shortly before he died, and he was truly incredible. Must confess somewhat to my shame that I’ve never been to the Globe, though. Should rectify that, but probably not soon … somewhat Shakespeared out, if I’m honest…

  • Melmoth says:

    How did the plays you just watched compare to the Barbican ones? If you say they were better I may have to sulk for a month or more, considering the news that you got to see Stephens’ Falstaff performance in the past as well!

    I’d certainly recommend the Globe as an experience worth trying, and being a groundling is more enjoyable than one would imagine. Worth waiting though if you’re all Barded out: I think a Shakespeare play is probably the best thing to see there, even if non-Shakespeare plays such as The Golden Ass are rather splendid.

  • James says:

    Ah, you have fine taste Joe. No, I’m not talking about Shakespeare, but about Baldur’s Gate II.

    I loved Irenicus in that (such a cool baddy), and thought David Warner was excellent at doing the voice. So much controlled malice in that tone of his.

    Baldur’s Gate II rocked very hard indeed. The ending, where Irenicus got pwned in the fires of hell, was pretty cool.

  • Ady Hall says:

    Hi Brow heaven indeed! It’s great to get a bit of the bard – especially if performed by quality actors!

    We have a troupe of actors visit the island annually to perform an open-air play at Peel Castle where we can bring picnic, blanket and, inevitably, umbrellas.

  • daft sod says:

    Since my mother tongue is not English, I have problems understanding Shakespeare on stage. The only way I could truly enjoy Shaekspeare on stage is by reading the play beforehand (with comments and explanations). My next contact with Shakespeare’s work will be in the Globe Theatre on May 29th. I think it will be A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Already looking forward to my first trip to England…

  • Anonymous says:

    Well naturally you’d wallow in the glories of dear old Will. Your books are strongly character orientated, aren’t they? Just as his plays are.

    Just about everything in Shakespeare is driven by the personal – love, hate, ambition, politics, morals, ethics. That’s why it speaks to everyone, why a genius like Kurosawa visited the canon so often with so much success. Macbeth as a Samurai? No problem; Lear as a dictator warlord? Easy. Because the motivations are universal and believable, the background becomes almost irrelevant.

    The great pity is that it’s become considered ‘hi-brow’. Damn shame, that. Sure, reading the plays in school as a 16 year old is usually depressing and leaves one feeling a bit lost at best. They’re not meant to be read, but to be declaimed, spoken, whispered, whatever, by someone who understands the rhythms of Shakespearian metre. Then it sings.

  • Melmoth,
    The Henry IVs at the Roundhouse were very good, I’d say probably a shade better than the barbican ones, but they were also some of the worst of what was on offer in this set of eight. It was VERY good INDEED.

    “I cannot be chained! I cannot be controlled!” I loves me some Baldur’s Gate II. I need to talk about computer games at some point…

    Verily. You can’t knock the bard.

    Daft Sod,
    Hope you enjoy it. I guess Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the easier ones to follow.

    Couldn’t agree more about the characters. One thing that struck me seeing eight (on the face of it quite similar) plays in such close succession was the way in which all the characters are so incredibly deep, nuanced, and varied. He never reverts to stock types. Truly the man was an utter genius.

  • Anonymous says:

    Re my comments above that it’s a pity Will’s stuff is now considered as hi-brow.

    Just think how much fun it would be to have a performance of R3 (aka Dick the shit) as depicted in Fforde’s ‘The Eyre Affair’.

    I for one would pay good money to see that.

  • isis says:

    I am very late to comment, but it is surely never too late to say: I miss Mark Rylance.

    Can you believe he left because people were pissed off that he didn’t refute all claims that anyone apart from WS wrote Shakespeare?

  • […]  I’ve always loved the histories, more than ever since seeing an incredible production of the whole lot (8 plays) in two weekends at the Roundhouse in London a few of years back, which was probably my best ever experience at the […]

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