'The War of the Roses --

Cate Blanchett, who immortalized England’s Elizabeth I for modern screen audiences, has returned in fine form to monarchical territory, switching genders to portray King Richard II in a sprawling, two-part epic amalgam of Shakespeare’s history plays about the Plantagenet dynasty, “The War of the Roses.”

Cate Blanchett, who immortalized England’s Elizabeth I for modern screen audiences, has returned in fine form to monarchical territory, switching genders to portray King Richard II in a sprawling, two-part epic amalgam of Shakespeare’s history plays about the Plantagenet dynasty, “The War of the Roses.” If only Sydney Theater Company’s ambitious production lived up to its co-artistic director’s vibrant lead performance.

The work of helmer Benedict Andrews, an enfant terrible of Oz theater, typically divides audiences with its in-your-face unorthodoxy. In act one he delivers a drama that demands much of its audience for few returns. Act two is an improvement, but the numerous bright spots dim over its considerable length.

The double-bill production is at once showy, contemplative and ambitious, but part one especially lacks the texture and theatricality to be truly compelling. Part two is more engaging, largely because of the inclusion of children, more sizeable female characters and the further casting of some women as men, which breaks-up the orgy of murderous testosterone that swills through part one.

Running almost four hours each, parts one and two are being sold separately.

The production has been shaped by Andrews and co-adaptor Tom Wright from eight of Shakespeare’s history plays, spanning the decline of British royalty from Richard II through six successive generations and bulging with murders, challenges to the throne and convoluted family relationships. In part two Andrews signposts the myriad stories and sub-stories with surtitles such as “The Killing of Clifford” and “Arcadia” and even makes light of the still difficult-to-follow action by having the players themselves feign confusion.

Part one has no sets; thesps wear contempo street clothes (courtesy of costumer Alice Babidge), and props are few — just a chair, a crown and not much else. The director’s money shot here is an hourlong rain of gold foil pieces that falls upon actors standing in stiff formation across the stage. This dense but gentle metallic shower is breathtaking to view but, combined with the low house lights and Robert Cousins’ otherwise frozen set, it has an unintended soporific effect.

Only Blanchett, as Richard II losing his empire, is permitted some movement on a chair out front of her court and a few turns across the stage, during one of which she urinates like a dog on a fallen challenger. But neither the role, nor the directorial limitations placed upon it, give the thesp much room to move.

Richard’s failure to arbitrate a dispute between two of his subjects, Mowbray (Steve Le Marquand) and Bolingbroke (Robert Menzies), results in his forced abdication. These developments are dramatic enough, but the static format and narrative haste make it hard work for the audience.

While act one belongs to Blanchett, the starker second act showcases the reliable Menzies, after Bolingbroke has been crowned King Henry IV, and Ewen Leslie in a breakthrough performance as Henry V. The sole stage adornment beyond the performers is composer Stefan Gregory with his guitar and amp, delivering distorted feedback that lurches from annoying to apt and serene.

The curtain rises for part two on a stage strewn with cut flowers, the red and white roses representing the houses of Lancaster and York. In the last act there’s a haunting and gently melancholic score and a set — finally. Constructed with Greenaway-esque precision, the painterly arrangment of steel children’s playground equipment beneath gently falling, horizontally-lit gray snow is beautiful.

Part two is dominated by numerous slayings as the warring houses rip through several kings and other pretenders to the English throne, with the players spitting blood into the faces of their victims. Each blood spatter is followed by a sprinkling of dust (actually flour), which ensures everyone gets messy, even those who continue to take part in the act — as ghosts or themselves, it’s difficult to tell.

Marta Dusseldorp shines in the first act as Queen Margaret, who saw her husband and sons lost in the conflict, while the final scene is highlighted by Pamela Rabe as Richard of Gloucester, whose brooding malevolence is articulated in “Now is the winter of our discontent…”

This production serves as a farewell after its four-year tenure to STC’s Actors Company ensemble (with Blanchett guesting). Blanchett and her co-director/husband Andrew Upton intend to replace the troupe with a permanent ensemble of theatermakers from numerous disciplines. Kudos to the company for its seamless delivery, but the soliloquy-heavy adaptation might have benefited from a more audience-friendly approach.

The War of the Roses — Part 1 and Part 2

Sydney Theater, Sydney; 800 seats; A$80 ($54) top each

Production

A Sydney Theater Company presentation of two plays each in two acts by William Shakespeare, adapted by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews. Directed by Andrews.

Crew

Sets, Robert Cousins; costumes, Alice Babidge; lighting, Nick Schlieper; original music, Stefan Gregory; sound, Max Lyandvert; production stage manager, Simon Khamara. Opened, reviewed Jan. 15 (Part 1), Jan. 20 (Part 2), 2009. Running time: 3 HOURS, 50 MIN (Part 1), 3 HOURS, 40 MIN (Part 2).

With

Cate Blanchett, Robert Menzies, John Gaden, Steve Le Marquand, Pamela Rabe, Peter Carroll, Hayley McElhinney, Brandon Burke, Marta Dusseldorp, Amber McMahon, Ewen Leslie, Eden Falk, Luke Mullins, Louis Hunter, Emily Russell, Holly Fraser, Billy Shaw-Voysey, Narek Armaganian, Leo Shaw-Voysey, Michael Kilbane.

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