The Royal Shakespeare Company has often redefined itself by presenting Shakespeare’s history plays, and may do so again when the first tetralogy – Richard II, Henry IV Parts I and II, Henry V – is up and running at the Barbican next January.
But for the moment, it’s the second tetralogy – the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III – that is engaging audiences’ attentions in Europe, with Trevor Nunn’s revival of the RSC’s landmark Wars of the Roses – John Barton’s compression of the Henry VI trilogy into two plays, Henry VI and Edward IV, plus Richard III – coming to the Rose Theatre in Kingston in October.
These plays tell the story of the Plantagenets in the aftermath of the Hundred Years War, the future of France, the internecine Wars of the Roses and the birth of the Tudor dynasty – the foundation of our modern society and the stability and continuation of the monarchy.
At the heart of all this current activity is a brilliant new production of the Henry VI trilogy by a young troupe, La Piccola Familia, based in Rouen, Normandy, and led by the 33-year-old actor/director Thomas Jolly. The production won acclaim at last year’s Avignon Festival, and Jolly, who plays Young Talbot and Richard, Duke of Gloucester, is completing the second of Shakespeare’s great tetralogies with Richard III in Rennes and Paris later this year.
Meanwhile, also last month, the Holland Festival in Amsterdam (now runby our own Ruth Mackenzie, architect of the London 2012 cultural programme) showcased Ivo van Hove’s Toneelgroep Amsterdam and its compression of Henry V (80 minutes), Henry VI (all three plays in 60 minutes) and Richard III (80 minutes) – coming to the Barbican next April – into a modern-dress study of the pathology of monarchy, Kings of War.
While Van Hove and his wonderful troupe – who scored heavily with The Roman Tragedies of Shakespeare at the Barbican in 2009 – offer a sleek, chic distillation in a cabinet war office (modelled on that of Churchill) with an upstage antiseptic white labyrinth where the nasty stuff happens, Jolly goes for broke with the Henry VI plays complete, in an accurate new translation (into French).
Why these plays, why now? I asked him this question when we met during the course of the performance of Henry VI in Rouen, his home town (where the British burned Joan of Arc, as re-enacted in the first play).
Jolly, who bears a striking resemblance to the young Alan Cumming, replies that the trilogy is all about 50 years of crisis, just as we in Europe are in crisis right now.
“And it’s not just the economic crisis,” he insisted, “but the crisis of European identity, as well as the breakdown of trust in politicians and the political process. The gangrene starts at the top and goes down to all levels. The renewal of the protest movement – as seen in the Jack Cade rebellion [in Part II] – is a phenomenon everywhere.”
Jolly’s Jack Cade is a punk pedagogue in a glitzy waistcoat and black topper who bursts into the proceedings in a light show – the lighting in this production is simply phenomenal all the way through. Some of the searchlight effects are beamed above the protagonists so they look as though they are tearing each other apart in a deep cellar – with a rousing, dirty chorus of Gary Glitter’s Leader of the Gang.
The overall style is much more eclectic and immediate than Van Hove’s hypnotic stage compositions, which badly undersell the considerable virtues of Henry VI as a play and present the hero as a whingeing weakling, which he’s not, as evidenced in Thomas Germaine’s richly varied and intelligent performance for La Piccola Familia.
Jolly finds a different formula for each set of battles using a full array of coloured lights, techno music, celestial visions, white and red ribbons for the roses of York and Lancaster in the Temple Garden, swirling streamers for swords on the battlefield and extracted innards of the victims, silhouettes in the tent scenes, piles of chairs for both horses at the Siege of Orleans (“lever le siege” means both to “raise the siege’ and “pick up your chair”) and faggots on Joan’s pyre.
The entire performance – the Rouen marathon lasted from 10am one Saturday morning to 3.30am on Sunday; 13 hours of theatre with long intervals – is emceed by a stylish, winking rhapsode (Manon Thorel), or chorus, who places the tumultuous events in a sly frame of sarcasm about the histories themselves, the stamina of the audience and the surreal absurdity of the whole occasion. Perhaps only the French could get away with this – a German director might be less inclined to employ such a wittily subversive tactic.
The German theatre of Bertolt Brecht, though, is at the root of the post-war rediscovery of the Henry VI trilogy, which, until then, certainly in the British theatre, was performed piecemeal as a pageant to justify the Tudor mythology.
At the RSC, Peter Hall had read Jan Kott’s chapter about the kings in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, and the resultant Wars of the Roses, produced with Barton and Clifford Williams for the Bard’s quatercentenary year of 1964, reclaimed the history plays as a brutal
cycle of ensemble realpolitik with heavy materials and weaponry, a clash of steel and gallons of blood. It featured towering performances from Peggy Ashcroft, Donald Sinden, Ian Holm, David Warner, Brewster Mason and Janet Suzman.
The plays were now performed all over Europe. Henry VI was established there during the 1970s and 1980s. The US scholar James N Loehlin, in his essay Brecht and the Rediscovery of Henry VI, itemised this history of the histories and reported that at least one European production of the trilogy was staged each year, usually in Germany.
UK theatre, too, has regularly challenged Barton’s original theory that Henry VI needed drastic cutting – will this make the Nunn Rose Theatre revival look too ‘historic’? – with Terry Hands leading the way at the RSC in 1977, followed by Adrian Noble in 1988 (though his “The Plantagenets” was heavily cut, too), Katie Mitchell in 1994 and Michael Boyd, thrillingly, in 2000.
The Jolly revival reminded me of the English Shakespeare Company version taken all over the UK and Europe by director Michael Bogdanov and actor Michael Pennington between 1987 and 1989. One of my favourite moments in that seven-play history play cycle was the “dissolve” from the riotous, football hooligan- style embarkation at Southampton in Henry V to the all-white decorum of the French court and that scene’s disdainful opening line from the king: “Thus come the English with full power upon us.”
There are many such pretty twists and nuances in the Jolly revival, something you simply don’t get with Van Hove because he has moved away from Shakespeare’s text to present a specific pageant of monarchy; until, that is, Hans Kesting’s tremendous Richard III – a psychotic, knock-kneed booby with a huge purple birthmark on his face – is unleashed in the last play.
Jolly ended Henry VI Part III with “Now is the winter of our discontent…” having sown the seeds of his Richard as a malevolent, quick-witted Gloucester with black eye make-up and sprouting wings (he also played Young Talbot in Part I, dying like a swan to the strains of Dido’s Lament by Purcell).
I watched the Rouen cycle with the scholar Dominique Goy-Blanquet, who said that far more attention was being paid to the text than in most French Shakespeare these days; the popular French imagination still views Shakespeare in terms of 19th-century bombast and rhetoric.
I often feel we need European productions of Shakespeare to liberate him from the stranglehold that our tradition, and even the texts themselves, demand. Van Hove’s Kings of War certainly gives us this fresh perspective. But the glorious irreverence and ingenuity of the Jolly japes goes brilliantly hand in hand with a much closer look at the plays, and what they mean, in our contemporary culture, too.