RSC makes history with Shakespeare

Commentary

LONDON — It may be possible, I suppose, in the future to see “Richard II” or “Richard III” on their own, not to mention any of the six plays that — in terms of historical chronology if not the order in which Shakespeare actually wrote them — come in between: the two parts of “Henry IV,” “Henry V” and the rarely seen “Henry VI” trio.

But as the stage lights dimmed here at the Young Vic Theater several weekends ago on a preview of “Richard III,” and an exhilarated if slightly dazed audience rose appreciatively to its feet, it was impossible not to be moved by the sight of Aidan McArdle’s “bottl’d spider” (aka the hunchbacked Richard) taking his bow, as well as Sam West’s sorrowful Richard II, David Troughton’s brazenly feisty Bolingbroke-turned-Henry IV and even David Oyelowo’s touching innocent of a Henry VI.

The occasion marked the conclusion of the second and final cycle whereby the Royal Shakespeare Company had made it possible for the first time (previous attempts have relied on conflations of the source texts) to see all eight of the Bard’s history plays in sequence, spanning a tumultuous near-century of pageantry, panic and misrule.

As millennium projects go, “This England: The Histories” — the banner title for the project — may not have been seen by as many people as the now-dismantled Millennium Dome, and the ephemeral nature of theater means, by definition, that it cannot linger on.

(The first four plays by now have closed; the second four remain on view through May 26.)

But the happy fact is that a company fond of events — 37 years before “Tantalus,” Peter Hall and John Barton gave the RSC their own history-play sequence with the now-legendary “The Wars of the Roses” — had done it again, and in an arguably far tougher climate. After all, who these days is prepared to sit for hours (1,413 minutes in total, or so someone calculated) of the Bard over five days, culminating — at least as I experienced it — in a Saturday marathon beginning at 10:30 a.m. and finishing at 11:10 that night? The apparent answer: More than 500 people who had paid well over $300 each to watch 79 actors play 264 roles, not to mention witnessing five severed heads, 50 swords and 10 pints of stage blood.

The result: An artistic bellwether for a once-beleaguered company that seems not only to have found its footing but to have leapt back into the fray with an audacity that Henry V himself might admire. (A scheduling conflict with a rival Shakespeare — “Umabatha: The Zulu Macbeth” at Shakespeare’s Globe — meant I had to miss the “Henry V” portion of the sequence, although performer William Houston’s biting if rather actorish command of the verse was on abundant display as Prince Hal in “Henry IV.”)

Inevitably, some productions were better than others, and there’s no doubt that “Richard III” marked an anti-climax after the heady heights of “Richard II” and, rather surprisingly, “Henry VI, Part 2.” But for once, the point was the cumulative impact rather than any one show considered in isolation. After all , it’s one thing for the baleful Richard II to profess to “tell(ing) sad stories of the death of kings,” as he so famously (and lyrically) does in a play that often seems a paean to Shakespeare’s own poetic assurance.

But to see the same play inaugurating something far larger than itself is to witness a fascinating transformation whereby the text’s understanding of realpolitik is what registers, and not so much its rhetoric. That explains why West’s modern-dress Richard — whose own beloved England is little more than a mound of earth to one side of a sterile white-box space — didn’t possess the charisma of the self-rhapsodizing monarch that has just earned Ralph Fiennes, London’s previous Richard II, a Drama Desk nod for best actor in its Brooklyn Academy of Music transfer.

No sooner had Steven Pimlott’s revelatory production, lit with an eerie metallic blue by Simon Kemp, posited “this other Eden” spoken of so mournfully by the aging John of Gaunt before Shakespeare’s own narrative was suggesting something else altogether. In context, Pimlott’s “Richard II” seemed to take its cue from the prophesy of a minor character, the Bishop of Carlisle, about major unrest to come: “disorder, horror, fear and mutiny” — a bit like London on any given May Day. (At the same time, anyone assuming that “King Lear” and “Titus Andronicus” own the patent on Bardic atrocity should wince their way through the third part of “Henry VI.”)

To see the plays as a collective whole was to witness so many thrilling variations on a theme, whether of filial abandonment and parental sacrifice or how the minority govern and how the majority who are governed choose to live. On the first topic, it’s hard to imagine a more quietly probing sequence in all of Shakespeare than the exchange early on between Prince Hal in “Henry IV, Part 1” and his surrogate father of sorts, the roisterous John Falstaff. “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world,” Falstaff remarks, only to be met by a coolly uttered reply, “I do, I will” from the same youngster who goes on to be the same Henry V capable of slaughter.

As for the enduringly controversial topic of kingship — not wasting any time, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles reportedly saw “Richard II” in its second week of performances — “This England” showed audiences a king struggling to be a man (Richard II) and another (Henry VI) crowned prematurely (at the age of 9 months) who would rather be “a subject” in contemplation of God. (The crown, he remarks, is “in my heart, not on my head.”) Then there’s Richard III, the king-as-clown, except that the laughter chills the blood — or would, if McArdle, a likable performer not quite up to the challenge, were more commanding.

Still, that’s to nitpick about an undertaking as unlikely soon to be forgotten as it is quickly to be repeated, especially since the RSC directorate was brave enough to employ four directors across the eight plays, allowing for multiple styles of production. (Comparable marathons in the past have adopted one uniform aesthetic.)

I’m not sure, in context, that we really needed the RSC’s proud press release, announcing — on Shakespeare’s birthday, no less (April 23) — that the man of the millennium is “STILL RELEVANT, POLL REVEALS”: block capitals theirs.

On the other hand, were his view of that bygone England insufficiently enduring, “This England” would not exist. Perhaps that allows for the elation accompanying the end of the cycle, notwithstanding its closing insistence on a “mad, scarred England.”

How bruised can Britain be if it is capable of such an artistic adventure ?

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