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  • Eddie Hewitt

Henry VI: Rebellion / Wars of the Roses

Royal Shakespeare Theatre. April 2022. Review.

Finally! Two years, two lockdowns and two postponements later, these two Shakespeare plays are now on stage in Stratford-upon-Avon. It’s time to make some history again together with the RSC. Enter Henry VI parts 2 and 3, renamed Rebellion and Wars of the Roses respectively. Originally all three parts were due to be presented in two combined plays. Alas, part 1 was performed in the rehearsal room and only streamed, for one night only, back in 2021. A cultural life-saver at the time, but I fear the RSC will ultimately fail to deliver the full first folio in this cycle by one play.

But now, with COVID bested and everyone getting on with our lives, lolleth, it’s time to come together again to enjoy live Shakespeare on the grandest of stages. And we’re being told to chillax! Both performances today will be chilled, for everyone, but especially for those who wish to talk or move around during the play. Peasants! Who would dare behave in such a way?

First, we have three hours of rising tension in Rebellion. Then, three hours of armed conflict in Wars of the Roses. This is going to be smouldering, then spectacular. A truly historic occasion. The theatrical cobwebs need to be blown away and our dramatic senses re-ignited. I’m counting on being astonished, maybe overwhelmed. You’ve got this, RSC.

For starters, the cast is massive with 85 players including a band of amateurs from the Shakespeare Nation community theatre group, here for the time of their lives. A grand day out is made even grander for us all.

For the professionals, Mark Quartley is superb as King Henry. Humble and thoughtful, but not weak. Director Owen Horsley won’t allow that. Henry undoubtedly is weak, politically, and he isn’t up for a fight, but he has inner strength, determination and a sense of duty. Here we see a decent man longing for a simple life, but continually being let down, snaked even, by those around him. Minnie Gale’s Queen Margaret leads the way in tormenting Henry. Indiscreet, outspoken and quick to chide her husband. Sharp tongued and cruel, scary but great fun too, and very physical, Margaret will do anything to avoid losing her royal status. Gale is clearly loving her role.

A pensive King Henry VI (Mark Quartley).

Photo (c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC

Challenging the unhappy couple, Richard of York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) is bold and confident in the extreme. He seeks to dominate, entirely convinced of his own right to the throne and determined to claim his rightful position. In contrast, Somerset (Benjamin Westerby) is scheming and silent until an opportunity to make mischief arises. Ben Hall plays a very emotional Suffolk. The skulduggery is going to his head and his head will soon be going its own way.

And then we come to Jack Cade, a rabble-rousing, pseudo intellectual. Followed by the many, but not much of a leader. Jack Cade tells his people what they want to hear then immediately contradicts himself. Aaron Sidwell’s Cade sounds uncannily like Russell Brand. His antics are rather more reminiscent of the law-breaking buffoon in Number Ten in our scarcely believable real political world.

Margaret of Anjou (Minnie Gale) leading the raucous celebrations at dinner. Entertaining the guests and embarrassing her husband. Photo(c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC

The plotting in Rebellion simmers, intensifies and reaches boiling point. The battles and the decapitations then come thick and fast in Wars of the Roses. Proud courtiers are brought low with in-your-face video footage projected onto a giant screen. Heads are separated from their original owners, then put into sacks or carried under arms, put on pikes or made to kiss other heads. The RSC does not shirk its responsibility to give us gruesomeness. This is how Shakespeare would have wanted it, I’m convinced. “Off with his head’ must have been a very special someone's catch phrase back in the day.

Time for a change. Richard of York (R, Oliver Alvin-Wilson) claiming the prize.

Photo (c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC

The old king is vanquished. The wars eventually cease, and Edward IV (Ashley D Gayle) leads the celebrations at the start of a new reign. But his brother, the new Duke of Gloucester, Dickon to his family and Dicky to his enemies, is already preparing to become Richard III. Arthur Hughes is magnificent as a bitter, jealous and hugely ambitious younger brother, soon to be assassin. But that’s for another day. The misshapen villain will call for his horse in the climax to the tetralogy, in a glorious RSC summer showdown.

Sons of York: L-R Richard (Duke of Gloucester, Arthur Hughes), George (Duke of Clarence, Ben Hall), Edward (soon to be Edward IV, Ashley D Gayle); and Warwick (Nicholas Karimi).

Photo (c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC

Rebellion and Wars of the Roses are magnificent productions, immense in scale and delivery, full to the brim with action, energy and captivating story-telling. I’ve never seen so much combat in Shakespeare’s plays. In contrast, there are so many moments of pathos and tenderness, desperation and grief, short lived joy and pointless hope. This is a nation tearing itself apart, inwardly as well as outwardly. The protagonists desire status and personal glory. Greed and pride come before the greater good. All very familiar to now.

What does this tell us more widely about social justice and humanity? These plays persuade me that when it comes to leadership and rivalry, no one really wins in the end, though the people who shout loudest, hit hardest and have the most good fortune tend to come out on top. At least until the next time, or eventually, when it will be their turn to fall. This gives us both tragedy and hope. Things change and they must always do so.

Might is right. But one day, many seats will be lost and even more heads will roll.

Photo (c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC

This is a day to reflect on the present as well as to celebrate history. Decades of harsh reality condensed within six brief passing hours of diversion and delight. A tale for our time, for all time. I praise the RSC for persevering and for restoring our dramatic world. Quite frankly, I was lost without them, for far too long. I'm revelling in this renewal of hope and joy and reacquaintance with an old and well-loved friend. I'm back with the Bard once again in his home town.

As I leave the auditorium I receive news of two stunning victories offstage for the House of Lancaster. Somerset have defeated Warwickshire at Taunton by an innings in the County Championship. Bravo Captain Tom! And Manchester City have thrashed Leeds United 4-0 at Elland Road. Long live King Pep!

Sensing a towering presence and thrilled to be back with the Bard

© Eddie Hewitt 2022

Production photos (c) Ellie Kurttz, RSC


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