REVIEW: The Wars Of The Roses: Richard III, Rose Theatre ✭✭✭

The Wars Of The Roses at the Rose Theatre, Kingston
Laurence Spellman and Richard Sheehan in The Wars Of The Roses. Photo: Mark Douet

The Wars Of The Roses – Richard III
Rose Theatre, Kingston
3 Stars
Book Tickets

Thus hath the course of justice wheel’d about,
And left thee but a very prey to time;
Having no more but thought of what thou wert,
To torture thee the more, being what thou art.’

Maybe we were all weary at the end of a full day of theatre; maybe, and with ample justification, the cast were flagging after appearances in different roles in the previous two parts of the trilogy, but whatever the explanation Richard III seemed something of an anti-climax, rather than the natural culmination of this notable revival of the Barton/Hall Wars of the Roses.

We are used to seeing this play in isolation rather than as the end of a longer story, and with the focus very much on the character and personality of the king and his cynical but brave defiance of all comers. By coming to it and to him through a more indirect route the impressions we take away are different. Richard’s brilliant virtuoso soliloquies are less of a surprise because we have seen them already in the previous play. We have seen him grow in confidence and evil panache, and so he is familiar, not shocking. Moreover, we have ‘stepped so far in blood’ already that the events of the play itself have rather less impact than usual, and even more so when Barton omits the description of the murder of the princes in the Tower. This is a mistake in my view because it is in exactly that crime that Richard goes too far and further than the many evil-doers in the previous plays. That point needs to be made, not downplayed.

The Wars Of The Roses at the Rose Theatre, Kingston
Robert Sheehan in Richard III. Photo: Mark Douet

In the original production, Ian Holm broke with the larger-than-life Olivier tradition and presented Richard in a much more low-key, Machiavellian manner. This portrayal by Robert Sheehan is similarly low-key but in a rather different way. I was genuinely impressed by his performance in Edward IV where the combination of physical bravery, soldierly skill, and cynical charm was winning and persuasive, and certainly found favour with the audience. His body language helped too. He used his disability (leg in calliper) to suggest an oblique crab-like gait which mirrored his (dis)engagement from the other characters; but there was also no lack of power or tensile strength in his soldiering. Here, however, his performance fails to grow much further.

His best scenes are those in which the persona he developed earlier on is given full rein – his debonair cynical contempt with the Lady Anne (Imogen Daines) and Queen Elizabeth (Alexandra Gilbreath) make their final acquiescence to his demands more plausible than it often seems. Likewise, his flirtatious acting in front of the Lord Mayor and people of London over his acceptance of the crown provides a fine and indeed funny tableau just ahead of the interval: his final tossing of his specious rosary into the crowd a well-judged moment of disdain. The rest of the performance though was highly generalised and to a degree uninvolved, at least in terms of the text. Given the superb standard of textual interpretation and enactment across the rest of the trilogy I can only attribute this to lack of time of energy in the later stages of rehearsal. Perhaps the interpretation will deepen as the run progresses.

This meant that the acting initiative passed to other players, and indeed there are some fine performances to remark upon, especially from cast members who have already contributed nobly in the earlier plays. Alexander Hanson proved a notably energetic Buckingham, really running the kingdom’s affairs for much of the middle section of the play, and fully to the pitch of his character’s glossy but guileful PR rhetoric. Again, in the earlier sections of the play Clarence (Michael Xavier) dominated the action and his death scene in the Tower was the feast of language and suspense that it should be. The young princes took their opportunity to mock and twit Richard notably well, and as their hapless father, Edward IV, Kåre Conradi did his best with a fairly thankless role, one of several in the trilogy where there is a prolonged sickness and death.

There was very credible support too, not least in his excellent accent, from Andrew Woodall as the Earl of Derby, and Oliver Cotton dramatised the hesitations and confused loyalties of Lord Hastings with vigour. I should add a special word for Geoff Leesley who offered quietly consistent advice to all of the kings in these plays as the Duke of Exeter and miraculously managed to survive both history and Shakespeare’s dramaturgy with his life and lands intact. Laurence Spellman was a much more characterful Richmond than usual, though looking more like a dashing young Henry VIII than his less prepossessing father. There was only one casting mistake in the shape of asking Alex Waldmann to appear as the ghost of Henry VI and as murderer Tyrell, the latter role wholly implausible when he had appeared as Henry hitherto and to such memorably saintly effect.

The Wars Of The Roses at the Rose Theatre, Kingston
Robert Sheehan as Richard III. Photo: Mark Douet

Barton rightly retains the scene in which all the key women in the dynastic struggles gather to curse Richard. I don’t know why this scene is so often left out when it offers a crucial point of re-cap and review for those who do not know the back-story and provides a final notable appearance for Queen Margaret (Joely Richardson), still pumped up with memorable invective. Above all this scene is a reminder that at every point in this drama there are powerful women shaping as much as suffering the direction of affairs, in at many points more decisively and ruthlessly than the men.

The creative impetus of Barton and Hall was above all focused on saving the Henry VI plays from neglect, and they triumphantly achieve that without doubt. I cannot imagine wanting to see those plays again in any other version than the ones we have seen here. However, they seem to have run out of steam by the time they got to Richard III, and this is more apparent in revival than it was at the time. There is simply not the same attention to telling detail either in text or in production that so distinguishes the first two parts. Trevor Nunn’s direction, for all its fluent, integrated gracefulness, has too little to say here in comparison with other productions, whether in London or Stratford or elsewhere.

That said, this revival of the trilogy as a whole more than justifies itself. Like Wagner’s Ring cycle and other epics, there are inconsistencies and some flat patches over nine hours of theatre, but the essentials still work tremendously well. The drama is engrossing and the plays demonstrate a subtle, undogmatic ability to represent incidents in mythological terms full of parallels to the modern world of politics and statecraft, just as Barton/Hall – and Shakespeare – intended. I feared I would be reminded of later satires – whether Blackadder or Monty Python’s ‘saucy Worcester riding across the plain.’ But at no moment did it approach or tip over into self-parody.

Of course, it is true that preoccupations with Brechtian dramaturgical style that were modish in the 1960s are no longer cutting-edge now, but these are matters of surface, not substance. They can be noted and put to one side. The heart of the matter is the way of reading and playing Shakespeare that Barton and Hall made famous, which is faithfully transmitted and revived here, just as fresh as ever. That is the greatest and most important vindication of all. I very much hope, therefore, that sponsor can be found for a film or television version which may capture for young actors of the future and for a broader posterity the achievement of this superb cast, just as was the case in the 1960s.

Read Tim’s review of Henry VI
Read Tim’s review of Edward IV


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