Wars of the Roses

Written by William Shakespeare
Northern Broadsides
Liverpool Playhouse (25th-29th April 2006)

Reviewed by Julian Bond

Northern Broadsides, the Yorkshire based company led by Barrie Rutter has three offerings on the road at present: Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. These first two are actually the three parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI split into two. Part of Shakespeare’s historical cycles of English kings and queens, it depicts the events of a hundred or so years before his time amidst the warring factions of the Houses of Lancaster and York.

Taken as a whole this cycle was largely successful, with a direct, forceful approach to the telling of these tales, professed quite justifiably and seriously in northern dialects, with strong irreproachable acting throughout. Not that imagination was lacking with ghosts and witches for example portrayed with finesse.

So to the specifics of this depiction of the parasitic, marauder class of bandits conventionally titled noble royalty, from the pen of the nascent English bourgeoisie’s brilliant poet without compare.

We have a weak Henry VI - weakly played for once by Andrew Whitehead - with a clichéd approach to servility and weakness that was plain irritating; being manipulated by all around as his father’s gains in France are squandered and the two houses begin their fight for ascendancy. Plenty of anti French jokes at the expense of Jeanne D’Arc amongst others, nothing much has changed I guess. This largely sets up the action, for indeed as far as drama goes our present day murder mystery writers could do no better than study plot development here, as murders come in thick and fast and the House of York seizes the day in Edward IV. We have ritualised battle scenes, with drumming to go - which I think covered the ground but didn’t work - and the marvellous Conrad Nelson played Richard of Glouster (Richard III to be) with malevolent laughter and cynicism. However, the force of death upon death was not adequately conveyed to my mind. An interesting ending had the victorious Yorkists at the coronation of Edward IV; suited up, white, like Liverpool’s famous cup final debacle of the nineties, and playing jazz music. This was just about justified, though it bordered on unintentional farce. A new gang was in town - New Labour if you like - more ruthless than the previous lot.

Finally we were treated to the tour de force of villainy - Richard III himself - worth watching just for the brilliant hellish descriptions of our limping friend; ‘Hell’s black intelligencia’ was my favourite. Was beautiful to watch Richard conniving his way to the crown, killing all in his path. But you know all’s well that ends well (sorry) and the natural order of this Elizabethan propaganda piece must be restored. So no horse for Richard and good king Henry VII brings in the Tudor legacy and let that be a lesson to you all. But but but why oh why did they throw all the energy and horror away at the end by evoking Richard’s battlefield death with the return of the aforementioned jazz players? I’m sorry but it had a woeful effect, dissipating all drama for the sake of I’m not sure what. Was a shame but there you go, all’s well that ends (mostly) well.

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