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30th Jun, 2022

Not history-making Shakespeare but not without punch

Matthew Salisbury 27th Apr, 2022 Updated: 27th Apr, 2022

HISTORY lessons always were a tedious procession of unmemorable dates, indistinguishable battles and forgettable regimes but in this double helping of Tudor pedagogy the RSC has striven to tidy up some of the tedium and make a virtue out of relentlessness.

With deaths and declamations aplenty, a sprawling register of power-hungry hopefuls and more bone-crunching battles than you could shake a sword at, this is thumping, no holds barred theatre. Owen Horsley unleashes the full complement of big-hitting effects from fairly graphic violence to a doom-laden soundtrack and, of course, the obligatory shock tactic of an abseil attack from the roof.

The production, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis, is large in other ways too. The RST’s stage never looked bigger or darker with little in the way of ornamentation and the players are dwarfed by a towering series of live projections onto the ceiling-height screen behind them. This is epic, it seems to scream.

The performances, on the whole, are themselves suitably large. There is very little escape, it has to be said, from the high volume, sinew-stretching acting of the angry, aggressive in full flow. But there are two exceptions all the more noticeable for being so.

Mark Quartley’s King Henry and Minnie Gale’s Queen Margaret both find sufficient gaps in the turmoil to offer moments of refection. The King is a man frequently being driven along by the decisions of state rather than giving any convincing display of being in control of it all. The Queen displays a ready wit and a biddable astuteness to be almost in charge of much of what is going on. History, once those who want it to underline their teaching get hold of it, can become the province of the two-dimensional stereotype; these two both keep our minds open to the fact that, amid all the facts and fury, real human frailties had a pivotal part to play.

A lot has been made of the way these two shows have been put together from the original plays to provide a clearer flow of thematic and dramatic content. It’s not the most radical decision given the plays’ slightly unfortunate reputation for being a tad light on charismatic characters and quotable poetry. This is always going to be comparatively dry material but the remix works on the whole and it will be interesting to see how large an impact it makes when the company next arrives at presenting this area of the histories.

But the problems in these shows – and despite the overall triumphant wallop they provide, there are failings – stem not from the source material but from its presentation. The necessity of displaying so many worthy nobles at the same time seems to force the characters apart. Vast swathes of the action looks like it’s been socially distanced with unnecessary distances rendering exchanges forced and sterile.

Problems lurk too in the clarity of many of the lines as declamation and the urge to inject pace leave too much incomprehensible too often.

There is much to admire in this bold but far from ground-breaking revisiting of this part of the canon and the plus points on balance outweigh the drawbacks. A creditable reinvention certainly, but not history-making.


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