What better way to celebrate the Platinum Jubilee weekend than with blood, guts and severed heads? All were on offer at the RSC’s production of ‘Wars of the Roses’, based on Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part III, and a direct sequel to their previous show ‘Henry VI: Rebellion’. Once again, Mark Quarterly took to the stage at King Henry, with Minnie Gale reprising her role as the fiery Queen Margaret.
The play picks up right where the previous left off – in the wake of Jack Cade’s rebellion. The battle of St Alban’s results in the King and Queen having to flee, leaving the Duke of York (Oliver Alvin-Wilson) on the throne. Over the course of the three hour play, the war for the crown continues, as York’s sons (Ashley D Gayle as Edward, Al Maxwell as Clarence and Arthur Hughes as Richard) get involved, each one fighting not only for their father but also for their own gains. With Henry’s son (Sophia Papadopoulos as Edward) also joining the fighting, it would be very easy for the play to become confusing or difficult to understand. Thankfully, the play is extremely easy to follow, even for someone who doesn’t know their history (like me!).
The scenes are action-packed, with plenty of fight scenes interspersed with political drama – this is very much Shakespeare’s “Game of Thrones”. The play is also incredibly fast-paced, thanks to the clever trick of bringing actors for the next scene on stage during the previous scene, leaving no time in between scenes for actors to switch places. A quick change of lighting and the next scene begins. I loved this as sometimes scene transitions can slow a play down, and the number of scenes in Wars of the Roses could have really hindered the performance.
The play also makes clever use of film and projections, with cameras capturing unique angles and perspectives of the action and projecting them onto the back wall (the ‘chainmail’ wall) to allow the audience to properly appreciate the subtle emotional work being done by the actors. One of my favourite scenes to utilise this technique was the death of Rutland (Emma Tracey – who once starred as an amateur actor in a little known project called ‘Dream 16’!). The camera work helped to build the tension and made the subsequent murder even more horrifying. Rutland’s dead eyes staring out at the audience had a far greater effect projected on the back wall for all to see.
Finally, no review of ‘Wars of the Roses’ would be complete without a special mention for Arthur Hughes’ Richard. Whilst ‘Wars of the Roses’ is fantastic as a play on its own, the play also does a lot of work of building up to ‘Richard III’, which is playing in Stratford-Upon-Avon in summer. The menace that Hughes is able to create, even when he’s not speaking, is both terrifying and exciting in equal measure. The final scene of the play gave me chills, and if ‘Wars of the Roses’ is anything to go by, ‘Richard III’ will be something very special indeed. This play has made us very excited for it - the RSC certainly have a lot to live up to, and we’re more than confident that they will be able to stick the landing. Keep your eyes out for my review of Richard III later this year!
Tom Morley, June 2022