Poster for The Wars of the Roses, featuring the words against a fiery background and red sky.

April 29, 2022, by Peter Kirwan

The Wars of the Roses (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

In the foyers of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Jack Cade’s face stared out from wanted posters. As the production itself began, Aaron Sidwell’s rebel stumbled across the stage, followed by the roaring mob who Clifford and Buckingham had earlier sent after their erstwhile leader. They caught and tore apart Cade bodily on the stage, holding up his severed head as the legend ‘THE WARS OF THE ROSES’ flashed across the beaded curtain that acted as a screen throughout. It was an arresting image with which to begin, though its purpose seemed more attention-grabbing than coherent with the rest of the production. A commons revolt tearing apart its own leaders is not, after all, quite the same as the dynastic war that the moment introduced. Further, by both changing Cade’s killer from a named (and subsequently ennobled) landowner into an anonymous member of the mob looking for financial reward, and by severing the connection between Cade and York from its context in 2 Henry VI, Cade’s death felt like a perfunctory wrapping-up turned into a gratuitous moment of violence, mere prologue to the slaughter to follow. It was a rare misstep in an otherwise assured production of 3 Henry VI.

Where Henry VI: Rebellion had offered a shortened version of 2 Henry VI, The Wars of the Roses set itself a formidable challenge by folding in the final act of 2 Henry VI to the already-long 3 Henry VI. However, director Owen Horseley and the team attacked this challenge with gusto. This was a much more visually and spatially coherent production than its precursor, the relentlessness and desperation of the violence crystallised in the opposed figures of Henry (Mark Quartley) and Richard of Gloucester (Arthur Hughes), building up to their final confrontation. While folding in the war scenes from the end of 2 Henry VI did lead to a certain amount of repetition (in particular, the two big trash-talking scenes from the end of the earlier play and the start of the later now happened within twenty minutes of one another), it also enabled the production to commit to its apocalyptic vision of England as a permanent battlefield, with Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set made up of piles of rubble, craters and broken bits of wood, and a throne that ended up sitting askew among debris. Quite what anyone hoped to get from ruling this wasteland was left as an open question.

The absurdity of the conflict felt baked into the tone from early on. Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s York came into his own in this production, cutting a lonely, iconic figure as he stood on a platform and announced – to himself and to the audience – his return to Britain. As Buckingham (Daniel Ward) and then the rest of the Lancastrian and Yorkist leaders gathered for their first confrontation, York refused to yield his dominant position. He comically feigned terror at Clifford’s (Daniel J. Carver) angry look, and casually apologised for soliloquising instead of replying to Buckingham’s questions. This more flippant side to York was welcome, he now embodying some of the anarchic irreverence that he had previously outsourced to Cade. There were limits though – while he used Somerset’s severed head as a ventriloquist’s prop, and then was happy for his sons to throw it around like a football, he and the other sons reacted with stony expressions to Edward (Ashley D. Gayle) pretending to fuck Somerset’s skull. While this was a very funny moment, anticipating Edward’s general lasciviousness, it was also a bleak reminder of the arbitrariness of standards on a battlefield of such atrocity.

What does it take to be king (or queen) of the rubble? The two early scenes in which the two sides squared up to one another – once on York’s return to England, once after the Yorkists had stormed Henry’s throne room – were exercises in self-positioning as part of a race to the bottom. Several characters – Margaret (Minne Gale), Young Clifford (Conor Glean), Warwick (Nicholas Karimi), York, Edward, Hastings (John Tate), Somerset (Benjamin Westerby), even the young Prince Edward (Sophia Papadopoulos) – vied with one another to be the most bad-ass, most unrestrained, most bloodthirsty person on the battlefield. This was a rhetorical strategy, in a war in which words could seem to genuinely defeat someone else. But words had to be followed with deeds, and if nothing else, this production convincingly imagined a world in which rhetorical posturing led inevitably to acts of unspeakable violence against other human beings; an eventuality which has unfolded very visibly in the current attacks on Ukraine, but also serves as a salutary reminder to many defenders of so-called ‘free speech’ of the horrific acts of brutality that follow inevitably from the dehumanising verbal assaults on the rights of individuals and groups.

The role of rhetoric in creating the ideal environment for violence was emphasised through the extensive use of live camerawork – much more thoroughly integrated here than in Rebellion. The cameras had a unusual semi-diegetic role within the narrative; the camera operators themselves were sometimes in costume but more usually not, and the level of awareness of the camera varied from scene to scene. Sometimes, the cameras seemed to be extra-diegetic voyeurs, as when they captured Henry’s hushed confab outside the auditorium when working out how to approach York on his throne. At other times, characters such as Margaret and Clifford explicitly addressed the camera to send messages to allies or enemies, or to incite their troops to conflict. In performing for the cameras, the characters themselves became identified with their performances. Margaret, in particular, became the embodiment of her own fury. Gale’s unusual performance saw her barely able to stay still; while the captured York mourned for Rutland, Margaret paced, reclined, sprawled, paced again, her energy only finally being expended when she was able to plunge her dagger into York’s body. Margaret’s uncontainable rage was a running joke at times – Exeter’s (Paola Dionisotti) dry deliver of ‘Here comes the queen’ before sidling quickly offstage after Henry’s resignation of the succession to York was particularly funny – but she seemed to have nothing to lose, making the implacable Young Clifford a perfect ally. Not until her son was finally killed in front of her did Margaret finally stop – and even then, when she was finally dragged offstage, she still did so kicking and screaming.

Everyone’s violence paled, though, next to that of Richard. Hughes was an immediately captivating and charismatic presence, and provided a definitive answer to the question of why it’s important for disabled characters to be played by disabled actors – because rather than spending his stage time trying to mimic a disability and creating barriers to his usual movement, Hughes simply played the role for all of its frightening and hilarious intensity. The lively atmosphere in the RST generated audible appreciative responses to his confidential asides, delivered with a winning smile but also a firmness of resolve that made quite clear his preparedness to follow through on his promises – as when he rushed ecstatically offstage, grinning ear to ear as he hinted to Clarence (Ben Hall) that he planned to kill Henry. The production made no bones about the purpose of this production being in no small part to set up Richard III, with Hughes enjoying long spotlit soliloquies and a level of privileged marking that unbalanced the whole in his favour. The visibility of Richard’s disability also had the effect of making transparent the ableism inherent in his treatment by everyone else – though no-one under-estimated him. The insistence of Richard’s enemies on his deformity and ugliness was accompanied by genuine acknowledgement of his prowess and ability and combat. But in his soliloquies, Richard reflected – not self-pityingly, or even resignedly, but as if stating cold facts – on what it meant to be unlovable. This isolation manifested as if something mutually agreed by Richard and all others, and Richard’s sociopathic pursuit of violence was presented as a natural extension of this state of isolation.

As other characters lost their empathy, the audience’s was appealed to through other means. One of the production’s outstanding performances came from the diminutive Emma Tracey as Rutland. Having an adult actor play a child worked to allow a complex performance, highlighted by the on-stage filming. The playful Rutland – seen briefly with his parents – was surprised by Clifford and went to hide behind the onstage throne. A camera allowed Rutland’s panic and fear to be thrown up onto the screen overhanging the stage while Rutland’s tutor (Lucy Benjamin) was killed; then, the camera caught every nuance as Rutland was found by Young Clifford and stabbed multiple times. This scene was played for every bit of pain and pathos, Rutland dying slowly on the stage, still projected onto the screen, while Clifford vaunted. The scene of the Father (Peter Moreton) and Son (Sidwell) mourning their accidental murders of their kin was cut short and kept to their initial laments, similarly captured in close-up by the cameras.

But, as in Rebellion, the core work of grief was left to Quartley’s Henry. Quartley’s Henry seemed more isolated than ever in this play. When entering the throne room, he and his allies were already outnumbered by the Yorks; that was before Exeter turned his back on his king, confirming that York’s claim was stronger. Without Humphrey to hide behind, Henry was exposed, terrified about making decisions, and easily led. In a particularly cruel moment, after agreeing that the succession would go to York, York approached Henry to shake his hand, only to scream a ‘Boo!’ into his face to scare him, before putting his arm roughly around the younger man. Yet as broken as Henry was, he retained a kind of strength in his integrity. His scene with the keepers (Benjamin and Richard Cant) was an important case in point; he quibbled with them even when they threatened him, insisting on the arbitrariness of their positions. When arrested, shockingly, he simply cast off his gown and walked naked to his confinement. Having witnessed his country torn apart, this Henry seemed to have nothing left to lose.

The final scene between Richard and Henry brought the sprawling conflicts down to a single confrontation. The staging showcased two very different kinds of power: Henry, sitting in contemplative stillness, stoic and peaceful at Richard’s arrival; Richard, drunk on violence, savouring the act he was about to perform. The two met physically and emotionally in the middle: Richard’s boast of having killed Edward brought Henry to his feet and elicited from Henry his firmest, most directed words of condemnation, but Richard eventually cut these off by leaning in and stabbing him, repeatedly and soberly, until the king lay dead at his feet. Both appeared to lose something of themselves in the encounter, and Richard’s regicide marked a shift to a kind of seriousness in his bearing, setting up the inevitable path to his own crown.

The severity of the violence and mourning didn’t mean that the production couldn’t find its sense of humour. The hilariously camp French scene, including a gleefully caricatured Louis from Cant and a very thirsty Lady Bona (Angelina Chudi, whose brilliantly expressive facial work in both productions suggests she’s a talent to watch, despite her limited stage time), was a welcome bit of comic relief, underscored by harpsichord and full of affected outrage (as well as the brilliantly fawning moment as Warwick suddenly flipped to being pleasant to Margaret). Edward of York, meanwhile, borrowed heavily from his father, with a sardonic and sadistic edge (especially when in the heat of battle), but also a weakness for showing off. Mocked gently by his brothers during his wooing of Lady Elizabeth (Yasmin Taheri), he showed a weakness around women that was stressed further during a later scene, as three young women passed through the curtains on their way to a private audience with him, shown in impressionistic close-ups on the screen as the young ladies – and, interestingly, Hastings – ‘entertained’ their new king. Edward led the dancing that concluded the production, implying a hedonistic, pleasure-seeking rule, while Richard held Edward’s baby and looked ominously towards the audience.

Of the pair of productions, The Wars of the Roses was far superior to Rebellion, with a clearer sense of politics, space, and purpose. But also, while so much of this production was designed to set up Richard III (including extended early appearances for characters such as Richard’s mother and Rivers, and a heavily marked introduction of Felixe Forde’s Richmond, who enjoyed temporarily wearing Henry’s crown), its vision of a scorched earth and a cycle of both rhetorical and bloody violence made it a powerful watch on its own terms. The irony of Edward’s proclamation of ‘lasting joy’ could hardly have been clearer.

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