Elizabethan, Expressionist, Epic Theatre at its Finest

10/08/2009 at 11:47 am 4 comments

The War of The Roses

Sydney Theatre Company, January 2009

This monster-length, four-part portrayal of three hundred odd years of bloody English rule leaves no quarter with its audience – and nor should it. The story is simple enough, and well documented – but the delivery incorporates a bevy of abstract imagery, confronting expressionism and some truly dazzling visual effects. Frankly, it’s a stunner.

Far from traditional, this piece of theatre takes us across the disintegrating, degenerating Kingdom of Richard II, Henrys IV, V & VI right up to the ill-fated reign of Richard III. With eight(!) of Shakespeare’s history plays as its cue – we get far more than a tale of bloodthirsty ambition and civil war. Director Benedict Andrews uses the text as a lever with which to pry open and peer into the darker depths of power, civilisation and war.

The legitimacy of rule gets stripped back until it is impossible to ignore the fact that ambition is fuelled by force on an horrific scale. The irony is irrefutable – when we see Henry take up a conquest of France to distract his citizens from the troubles at home – yet his cold-blooded pride knows know bounds until he starts to count the dead – but by then it’s too late.

Of course, our modern democratic leaders would never show such blithe hubris, would they? And yet the shambolic, absurd rituals we see before us echo so easily into our world, one of neverending war propped up by nonsensical terms such as ‘honour’ – as Falstaff laments toward the end of Part 1 ‘Honour hath no skill in surgery‘ – and yet brings so much bloodshed to those who claim it as their cause.

The staging is ambitious, difficult and on a massive scale. Across the ensemble – the actors should be applauded purely for their powers of concentration and memory, as this is performance at its most demanding. From Cate Blanchett’s sneering, callow Richard II and his fall from grace – the repercussions of which do not stop until the final act, some three centuries hence as Richard III viciously plots his rise – and although we think we have seen the limits of murderous ambition by then, somehow the mad, paranoid portrayal by Pamela Rabe outdoes it all. Perhaps it is in the childlike naivety of the killings – all the other Kings at least had shown some cause for their bloodlust – but this final King seems obsessed with power if only to find that he knows not what to do with it, just another pretty object to wield.

This final horror leaves the audience with a very simple end note, which should not be described, because, like the many visual and aural effects throughout the play need to be in context for full impact – regardless of your familiarity with Shakespeare, this needs to be seen to be believed – the war play to end all war plays.

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VICTOR SANCZ vassanc [AT] gmail.com

since 2009

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