Binge-worthy epic war tale: Steve Sutherland reviews Rebellion/Wars of the Roses at the RSC: ****
How does that old song go again? War: what is it good for? Absolutely nothing…
The RSC begs to differ. War, it seems, is a very good theme for a six-hour binge-watch of an inspired mash-up of a couple of early historical works by the Bard and some accomplices (Marlowe, maybe) all about the many factions battling each other for the throne of Henry VI. Entitled Rebellion and Wars Of The Roses, the pair of plays are mostly being performed separately but on this occasion (press night, 21st April) they were run in sequence - a daunting prospect that turned out to be anything but arduous.
Mercifully free of the RSC’s recent penchant for messing about with the Bard, often seemingly just for the sake of it, these Henrys should probably be bamboozling things, what with everyone scheming against everyone else and changing sides and back again and all. But, on the contrary, due to director Owen Horsely’s steady steer, the machinations are clarity itself and we are pacily guided through the tangled intrigues, never abandoned to heavy proselytising. We never lose the plot. These are plays best served by character and action rather than words and Horsely’s cast embrace the challenge splendidly; Rebellion full of whispers and smirks, Roses full-on bish and bash. These are scenarios somewhat familiar, presumably, to addicts of Game Of Thrones which took admitted inspiration from the Henry’s. Not being a Throney myself, I can’t vouch for that - too much life to life, too little time left to live it. Whatever, this is certainly an epic cast - 25 or so principal RSC actors most taking multiple roles across the two plays, augmented for crowd scenes and message-bearing by amateurs from theatrical groups ranged across the nation.
Henry - king since nine months old - is a ditherer, more suited to monkish study than sturdy rule, his prevaricating, weakness and guilt played with trembling resignation by Mark Quartley. It’s not an enviable role - Henry’s indecisiveness mocked and exploited at every turn - but he brilliantly sets the three-dimensional character template for one and all. We are frustrated at his frailty, yet sympathise with the no-win situations he endlessly inhabits. By the end, exiled, captured, resigned to his death, he resembles no-one so much as Lear, Shakespeare’s later royal architect of his own demise. Likewise the leading ladies. Minnie Gale is marvellous as Margaret, the French noble married to Henry in a political arrangement, at first fun and flirtatious, then turned flinty and vain, then utterly fierce and finally, like all the rest of ‘em, broken, begging for death. We are appalled at her naked ambition, sympathise with her despair and admire the way she puts her muscle behind her moxy. She’s an obvious prototype for Lady MacBeth, as is Lucy Benjamin’s shrill yet spirited Eleanor, Duchess Of Gloucester whose ideas above her station cause the downfall of both herself and her husband, Henry’s Uncle and the realm’s Protector, Gloucester. Richard Cant plays him smoothly as a pious fuddy-duddy who may or may not value his own position over his love and duty for his nephew. Again, we feel for him as the knives are sharpened behind his back yet grow wary and suspicious of his motivation.
They’re all as bad - and good - as one another, and all exquisitely acted, none more so than Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s brooding York, the very acme of malignant diplomacy and a mercilessly brutal practitioner in the savage art of battle and yet a loving patriarch with a pretty fair claim to the throne. Everything, in fact, that Henry isn’t. Then there’s Aaron Sidwell’s Jack Cade, a rabble-rousing puppet who would be king, set up by York to drain force from his enemies and distract them from his own devious purpose. Sidwell’s electric, demented even, and before he gets what’s coming to him, the audience shudders and laughs at his utterly self-serving but persuasive perversion of logic. Lies are truths as long as he says they are; a harrowing reflection of our own present Parliamentary farce.
Talking of the darkly comical, one of the very best things about this excellent production is the way it extracts humour from all the twitching gore. There’s a daft scene where a few unscrupulous beggars connive to convince the court that one of their number, blind since birth, has suddenly gained his sight through a saintly miracle, and the bit where Eleanor manages to un-Duchess herself by being conned into dabbling in a black magic set-up brings welcome comic relief even as it’s woven into the fabric of her undoing.