London: RSC's Histories

I may never forgive the directors, cast, crew, and designers of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Histories. I am only 25, I have many more nights of theatre to come, but I have already had the greatest theatrical experience of my life.

With 34 actors, Artistic Director Michael Boyd has staged all eight of Shakespeare’s History plays, chronicling one hundred years of English history. The plays are Richard II, Henry IV part 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI part 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III.

These eight productions are so smartly directed that they truly feel like one long play. They are so unified that I can no longer imagine seeing them apart. Each of these plays has moments of exposition, where characters speak about events and treacheries in the past. It is such a more powerful experience when what they speak about is something you just witnessed a couple of hours before.

Each play clocks in over three hours, totaling up to about 24 hours of Shakespeare. With such little cutting, you really get to experience and appreciate everything that goes on in these plays. And it is lovely to see gorgeous speech after gorgeous speech so intact. The acting is magnificent; these hours and hours of theatre do not wear the viewer out; as soon as it was over, I wanted to watch it all over again.

I have friends who claim they don’t like the RSC because they find their style stodgy and declamatory. It is clear that they haven’t seen this company recently. In all that 24 hours, there wasn’t a moment of boredom, there wasn’t a moment where the text wasn’t absolutely clear.

The action was always moving, the stakes always high. And the actors’ verse speaking abilities were a wonder to behold. They truly owned the language, managing to be poetic and real, beautiful and natural.

Before heading to London, I had heard how wonderful Jonathan Slinger was in these productions. This is true, but there are three stars to be found in the cycle: Slinger, Clive Wood, and Geoffrey Streatfield. These three actors each play two major roles, thankfully never disappearing from the stage for long.

Slinger takes on the ill-fated rulers, first Richard II, then returning to wrap up the cycle as Richard III. Both performances were amazing. Slinger has that special spark that allows him to hold the audience in his hands. His ability to connect with and involve the audience is part of what makes him so successful in these roles.

Slinger’s Richard II is upright, graceful, with mincing steps and arms that smoothly swing in front of his body. It is a character that lesser actors would overplay, but Slinger doesn’t. He captures a sense of lightness, of frivolity, of vanity, but also makes you see a man in power and the dignity that entails.

Slinger’s Richard III is the best I’ve ever seen, and helped by the fact that we get to see him first in H6. The audience is treated to a fully developed character and we get to see the past that makes Richard III who he is. The familial relationships are so clearly defined; the young Richard’s desire for the affection of his father, the attention of his brothers, the grown Richard’s hurt at his mother’s curses, buried deep below. Slinger’s Richard is extremely witty and funny.

The best moments in the cycle from Slinger are the heartbreaking scene where Richard II gives up his crown and loses his identity, and his rendition of Richard III’s “I can smile, and murder while I smile”. The first act is wisely stretched out in order to interval after this monologue. Otherwise, I have no doubt that applause would have stopped the show in its tracks.

Clive Wood takes on the roles of the main usurpers in this tale. First he is Henry Bolingbroke, who wrests the crown from Richard II and becomes Henry IV. In the second tetralogy, he plays Richard Plantagenet, father of Edward, George, and Richard III.

Wood has a powerful, commanding presence. He is completely believable as men who are able to draw others to their side and take down weaker kings.

This is going to be a tangent, which I try to avoid in these posts, but I’m kind of obsessed with the play Lion in Winter. I have a dream cast that I want to see in it. (Does this dream cast include me? Naturally.) Clive Wood has jumped to the forefront of my list of actors, and if I ever hear that he is playing the lead in this play, it might just be enough to get me back on a plane to England. Digression over.

Directors often cut H4 in order to further highlight the character of Falstaff. Often Henry IV’s role gets chopped to nothing in order to spend more time with Hal and Falstaff. Here we luckily get to watch many wonderful scenes and monologues with Henry IV.

Wood’s finest moments come as his Henry IV dies, and in all his scenes with his son Hal. These scenes are killer, so touching, which brings me to the third actor, Geoffrey Streatfield.

From the moment Streatfield enters, lounging about on a bed, hanging out with Falstaff, there is just something about him that makes you long to see what he will do in H5. The journey Streatfield goes on is magnificent. His Hal is a kidder and jokester, witty, but not a bad person. You completely believe his transformation into the king and leader Henry V. Streatfield’s Hal matures in both physicality and voice.

Streatfield is brilliant throughout H5. His ‘We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us’ is fantastic, his ‘Once more unto the breach dear friends’ is so rousing you want to get out of your seat and follow him into battle. His relationship with Falstaff is so well played, and the pain he feels when he disowns Falstaff is palpable.

In H6, Streatfield returns as the Duke of Suffolk, lover of Queen Margaret. Streatfield is a funny and charming Suffolk, younger than I’ve seen before. I think the age works, it helps to explain why Henry VI would let himself be persuaded by Suffolk to marry Margaret. It gives the two of them a slightly different relationship than Henry VI has with the rest of his advisors. When Suffolk has to leave Margaret forever, the scene is passionate and heartbreaking.

The final actor playing a title character is Chuk Iwuji, as Henry VI. He is likewise excellent as the saintly king. Though Henry is a weak king, Iwuji never loses the audience’s sympathy. He also does a great service to the role by not playing weak. His Henry VI is capable of great feeling and great anger. He is wonderful in the scene where he banishes Suffolk, barking at Margaret, “Ungentle queen, to call him gentle Suffolk!”

Micheal Boyd has created incredibly rich productions, through casting and the use of repeated images. For instance, Chris McGill plays Northumberland in 3H6, and Grey in R3. In 3H6 he stands downstage left, as the young Rutland is brutally murdered. In R3 he stands in the same location when this murder is spoken of, and, as Grey, is given Buckingham’s line, “Northumberland, then present, wept to see it.”

Another lovely piece of direction is the casting of actors Keith Bartlett and Lex Shrapnel. These two play father/son duos throughout the eight plays. They play Henry Percy and Hotspur, Talbot and John Talbot, the father who killed his son and the son who killed his father (a very neat way to stage this scene), and finally Lord Stanley and Richmond. These two actors have built up quite a rapport, so by the time you see them together in R3, their scenes are extremely touching. And when Richmond gives his final speech describing the situation in England, the emotional depth is remarkable when he reaches the lines, “The father rashly slaughter’d his own son, / The son, compell’d, been butcher to the sire.”

These are just a couple examples of how these productions succeed in not forgetting the details. Director Michael Boyd gives us plays that are action packed, full of battles and arguments, and yet they are also filled with deep emotion and beautiful relationships.

I could spend pages more relating all the excellent performers on that stage. There is Katy Stephens’ spirited and beautiful Joan of Arc, coupled with John Mackay’s delightfully peacockish Dauphin. The ensemble approach gives many members of the company to have their moment to shine. For instance, Keith Dunphy as Young Clifford, Nicholas Asbury as Pistol, and James Tucker as George of Clarence.

In short, there is hardly a weak link in the cast. Many kudos to the cast, crew, designers, and musicians for this epic event they have brought us. I spent most of this post focusing on the actors, but I could also go on and on describing and lauding the use of the space, the design of the piece, the lights and sound, the music (including Sianed Jones' absolutely haunting rendition of Lady Mortimor's song), etc. Those of us in the audience will never forget. And if there is someone reading this with lots of money to spend, give it to the RSC so they can bring these productions to America. And then send me tickets.

5 stars
Through May 25th.


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