“The Wars of the Roses” was a landmark production back in 1963 — one for the history books. Compressing the three parts of “Henry VI” and “Richard III” into a streamlined trilogy, and staged with epic aplomb by Peter Hall, it put the Royal Shakespeare Company — still only three years old — firmly on the map. Two years later, it was filmed for the BBC and now, half a century on, Trevor Nunn pays tribute to it with a revival that is itself stuck in the past — inexcusably so.
As a chance for a new generation to see what all the fuss was about, this is the worst way to go about it. The original was, according to the late critic Bernard Levin, “one of the mightiest stage projects of our time, a production to remember all our lives.” Look back at the cast list and drool: David Warner, Peggy Ashcroft, Donald Sinden, Ian Holm. Barton and Hall were credited with finally getting the problematic “Henry VI” trilogy to work, and with expressing not just the political tumult of the post-war era, but also, by propelling into Richard’s killing spree, the risk that it gives rise to total, tyrannical horror. Nunn boils all that down to schlock.
His production has already attracted criticism over its all-white cast — a decision Nunn defended on the grounds of historical accuracy, which, frankly, is no defense at all. (It is fascinating to discover, mind you, that Joan of Arc spoke with a West Country accent. Who knew?) The thing is, history is all Nunn’s got. There’s hardly a trace of metaphor or dramaturgy in nine hours, no studied consideration of power or politics; just events, dear boy, events, and a succession of kings.
At best, as Nunn himself has pointed out, it becomes a kind of proto-“Game of Thrones,” which makes it sound far sexier than it is. Shakespeare shows us a kingdom divided by warring clans, with a cast of ferocious warriors and gnarled villains, vindictive queens and sapling kinds, and death after death after death. But Jon Snow would eat this lot for breakfast, and next to the Red Wedding, it all looks like a nursery rhyme.
For one thing, it’s completely bloodless. Men and women keel over center stage, clutching their stomachs and groaning, or they gargle a bit then go limp. Presumably that’s to preserve the rented costumes — more tunics and smocks and chainmail onesies than you ever saw. It’s so old-school it’s silly. John Napier’s design looks like a 1980s mega-musical (“Les Roses”?), complete with plasticky stone throne and battlefield haze. Every scene starts with a tinny offstage alarum and there are more slow-motion, strobe-lit sword fights than you could ever wish for.
The acting is mostly of the plant-your-feet, shout-and-spit school. One cast member is so wobbly-jowled as to be incomprehensible. Joely Richardson’s accent crosses continents, and Robert Sheehan plays Richard III with the classic reedy whine. Only Alex Waldmann’s Henry VI and Alexandra Gilbreath as Queen Elizabeth are remotely credible.
The marvel is that, in spite of all these crimes against contemporary theater, it’s actually relatively watchable — just not for nine hours. Think Shakespeare as soap opera, uncomplicated and upbeat. That, or maybe Stockholm Syndrome had kicked in.