Aggro at Agincourt

Review of Shakespeare: The Wars of the Roses

The Old Vic

Times Literary Supplement24 Feb. 1989 © the estate of eric sams

The declared aims of the English Shakespeare Company are high and right (as distinct from low and left) minded. Its founders and artistic directors Michaels Bogdanov and Pennington, as the hand-out calls them, see their enterprise as collaborative and educational. So they rely on ensemble playing instead of the star system: and they set out to please young playgoers. Their detractors will say that the result is a stock repertory company patronizingly catering for school parties with such kid stuff as the banner saying "Fuck the Frogs" which is designed to reveal the true spirit of Agincourt.

     These productions certainly prove that Shakespeare's genius can provide us with profound insights into the mind and art of Michael Bogdanov, whose direction skilfully exposes the essential evil and cruelty of the English. For Pennington too, in interview, these ESC versions are somehow "about" the violent and disunited front that England presents to him now, which is in turn presented to the world at large, on global tours. The Union Jack appears well suited to cloak the sins of live yobs and dead nobs alike, from the Fascist hooligan Cade's vest to the warrior king Henry's pall. The ill-assorted uniforms illustrate our bosses and thugs, from genteel City pin-stripe to 1914-18 khaki, in which some of the cast go over the top. Back here at home, comic police­men brutally truncheon ordinary decent criminals. The explosively over-amplified Muzak no doubt also symbolizes our own violent fragmentation. These contemporary, if rather racist, perspectives are deftly substituted for Shakespeare's universality, as if to show that he was not for all time but an age, namely adolescence. Of course the mainly young audiences loved it: and so, on the whole, did I.

    Theatres are after all places of entertainment, a fact too often forgotten by scholars, whose studies the two Michaels need not disturb. These shows move at a cracking pace, and go with a bang. Pistol's cock literally flashes fire, and terrifies the stalls. The time saved by double-quick scene-shifting is some­times squandered, as when a whole episode of Henry IV Part Two is played in Welsh without subtitles. But the abiding impression is one of corporate enterprise and communal purpose embodied in acting techniques which generate their own excitement and novelty. Once again actors are sharers, as in Tudor times. One feels that all the players know all the parts, and that genuine talent will be rewarded by the opportunity of major performance, as when John Dougall alternates with Michael Pennington as the voting hero of the Henry IV and V plays.

    Their strong structure of interlocking con­trasts stands up best to the robust ESC treatment. Perhaps Barry Stanton, for all his accomplished artistry, is too knowingly aware of his audience, more like a compère than a character; his Falstaff is sometimes rather in­congruously lightweight. So, for different reasons, is John Dougall, whose stage presence is perfect for the scapegrace prince but only every other inch a king. But their joint nimbleness of foot and tongue imparts added pace to the proceedings; the natural dignity and deliberation of Michael Cronin as Henry IV and Hugh Sullivan as the Lord Chief Justice make effective foils. The physical fight scenes, whether duels or battles, are well arranged throughout the series.

    But the other four plays, in productions new to London are more problematical. The company seems to have created some of its own difficulties by presenting separate works of art, written in a quite different order, as an integral and consecutive cycle. Worse still, the plays are absurdly supposed to be pro-Tudor propaganda, and hence very bad and misleading as history lessons. No chair for Shakespeare. As the historian J. L. Bolton naively explains in a programme note "the first thing to realize about Richard II is that he was not a tragic figure, as Shakespeare makes him out to be, but a tyrant". But Pennington’s portrait is sensibly drawn from the poetry, not the life, and very affectingly too.

     The real trouble begins with the Henry VI texts, which contain Shakespeare’s very earliest datable stylistic strata. Here the "cycle" goes verbally flat, and has to he patched by cutting and resplicing, and pumped up by stage business. Three five-act plays are squashed into two evenings, one for each warring house: thus Lancaster is represented by a condensed version of Henry VI Parts One and a Half, and so on. Several mighty lines (perhaps later addi­tions) are squeezed out in this process; Young Clifford's powerful battlefield lament is, like his slain father, cut short. However, out of this nettle, unwieldiness, we pluck this flower, manageability. Here is the very voice of the adapting actor-manager, through the ages. But it is not Shakespeare's.

     Nor are all these plays, some say. The Oxford editors for example have convinced themselves, if nobody else, that Act I of I Henry VI should have been left to the English, or Royal, Nashe Company. But there was ample audible evidence for Gary Taylor's further theory that Shakespeare may well have had some help from the anonymous author(s) of Edward III and Edmund Ironside: the textual echoes are reverberant. The former play is in fact the fountainhead of all these seven historical dramas, and the copious source of their recurring leitmotifs. If it could be performed in the present context (say by co-opting Toby Robertson's excellent Theatr Clwyd production) its Shakespearean origins, also strongly suggested by the Oxford editors, would become increasingly manifest.

     Meanwhile the world still awaits, with no discernible impatience, a definitive identifica­tion and performance of how, what and when the young Shakespeare actually wrote. We shall get no help from the thirty-year-old Arden editions on exclusive sale in the Old Vic foyer, nor from actors and directors who rewrite First Folio texts and present the results as authentic. What is billed as "the Wars of the Roses. Shakespeare's great history cycle" is, in these Henry VI versions, neither Shakespeare's nor great, and in general neither history nor a cycle, and indeed only tangential to the so-called Wars of the Roses (1455-85) which occupy only the last three evenings out of seven.

    Never mind, they all offer memorable and often moving moments, with many first-rate performances which should not he missed. For example, Paul Brennen, Clyde Pollitt and Jusfe Watson not only play various contrasting roles but find room for developing characterization within each. Andrew Jarvis adds further varie­ty of diction and body-language. As Hotspur, even his gait has a Northern accent; as the Dauphin, he struts in French. His Richard of Gloucester, Duke and King, presents the high profile of a killing eagle, with humped shoulders, bald head, and the ominous matching movements of sudden lift and swoop. More intensely than in any other Shakespeare play, the vocabulary of Richard III is crammed crim­son with blood and hellfire. This larger than life-size portrait of innate human wickedness dwarfs the directors' limited frame of mind, their sociological sloganizing is worlds and cen­turies removed from such transcendent themes as sin and damnation, which make the stage properties and business of telephone, tele­vision and so forth look sadly trivial.