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The Wars of the Roses at the Rose Theatre – ‘dated and overblown’

Alexander Hanson (Duke of Buckhingham) and Joely Richardson (Queen Margaret) in The Wars at The Rose Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet Alexander Hanson (Duke of Buckhingham) and Joely Richardson (Queen Margaret) in The Wars at The Rose Theatre. Photo: Mark Douet

Trevor Nunn’s revival of John Barton and Peter Hall’s famed reworking of Shakespeare’s history plays has already put a frame around itself by way of the controversy surrounding its all-white casting.

But by making the argument for ‘historical verisimilitude’ (which doesn’t appear to extend to matters of dentistry or hygiene) Nunn has merely succeeded in placing his trilogy in a big dusty box, a container from which it never quite escapes. In fact all too often it feels like there must be a flux capacitor hidden deep within John Napier’s excessively balconied set, so dated does this production feel. This is time-machine theatre.

It’s not exactly set in aspic, but nor does it seem to breathe air, and it certainly doesn’t seem in any way conversant with the developments in theatre of the last few decades. Thrones roll in on castors and the actors are forever tearing across the stage with their swords aloft, chainmail clanking, while the music is all drums and trumpets – so very much trumpet. The strobe-lit, slowed down battle scenes become wearying after you’ve seen five of them, and when it’s time for a character to die, they collapse cleanly in the centre of the stage, for this is a bloodless production in more ways than one.

Some of the directorial choices border on the perverse. This is not a cast short on talent, yet so much of the acting feels, at best, mechanical. There’s no variance. It’s all so dispiritingly overblown, all jut and strut and puff, all chin and chest, like they’ve all been told to round out every vowel, to blow the words up like balloons.

The majority of the soliloquies are bellowed and many of the performers seem to be engaged in a kind of gestural underlining, hands slicing through air; the richness of the language gets all but buried as a result, sacrificed to this verbal bag-piping, this game of moans.

Only Alex Waldmann’s meek Henry VI, such a genial barefoot kingling in the beginning, manages to impart something natural into his role. Everyone else appears to be acting for the balconies; Robert Sheehan is not an uncharismatic performer, but as Richard III, with his leg laced in a brace and his arm slung to his body, his performance is all hiss and twist. Joely Richardson’s Margaret, meanwhile, is saddled both with Sansa Stark’s hair (surely intentional) and an accent thick as syrup (probably less so).

There’s something to be said for viewing the history plays in one epic sitting; it does at least enable an appreciation of their trajectory, their echoes and connections. And Nunn’s canter through Henry VI is fun in its way, but this early momentum soon wears off, leaving behind only the ceaseless biscuit tin ping of prop swords on prop shields, this playgrounding of Shakespeare.

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A dated and overblown take on  Shakespeare’s history plays