The four Histories that John Barton incorporated into Wars of the Roses in 1963 were but half the compilation that two young Aussies – Benedict Andrews and Tom Wright – have come up with in their War of the Roses, taking us all the way from Richard II to Richard III.
Since the original caused director Peter Hall to suffer a breakdown, it beggars belief that Andrews has retained his sanity. Perhaps the only way he could have done it was to seize on a single line through this massive work of history and propaganda, emphasising that Shakespeare was writing the Tudor Bible, creating the conditions in which a Queen divine could be worshipped, as long as she remembered the lessons of pre-Tudor times when overweening ambition by those wanting to wear the Hollow Crown made the lives of ordinary people very nasty, brutish and short.
Andrews is helped in his blinkering by two factors. As director, he’s given each of his four acts a powerfully distinctive flavour. Golden rain pours from the heavens throughout Richard II’s reign and downfall, a live guitar rumbles and thunders as Henry V emerges from his father’s gloomy shadow, a vast cemetery full of flowers offers an infinity of graves for Henry VI’s bloodied bodies and teeming sleet denies that Winter of Discontent any chance of becoming summer in Richard III.
And then, as though Andrews was still addressing the Virgin Queen directly, he’s cast as bookends to the morality women instead of men. Cate Blanchett maintains a mesmerising, effete centre stage front throughout Richard II and Pamela Rabe moves like a wicked spider through Richard III’s grim playground. Both transcend their gender in the range of their voices.
The production goes to the Perth Festival, but the text, with its clarity of vision and so many famous speeches heard afresh, deserves to travel further.