Arts: History Repeats Itself at the RSC; Director Michael Attenborough Talks to Terry Grimley about the Abiding Fascination of Shakespeare's History Plays

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Cynics used to say that when the Royal Shakespeare Company was in trouble at the box office it was time to roll out another cycle of the history plays.

But the current two-year cycle, This England - the most extensive it has ever undertaken - comes at a time when the company is in rude health. The general consensus is that the RSC is in excellent artistic form, audience figures in Stratford are good, and company morale is almost ostentatiously high.

The first two instalments of This England, Richard II directed by Steven Pimlott at The Other Place and Henry IV, Part I directed by Michael Attenborough at The Swan, have both been well received by critics and audiences, and Part 2 of Henry IV is unveiled on Thursday.

These first two productions have been quite different in style, but then, as Michael Attenborough pointed out to me during a break in rehearsals, so are the plays themselves. The stylistic inconsistencies are not surprising, given that Shakespeare did not write them in chronological order.

'We found that, unlike The Wars of the Roses and The Plantagenets, they don't lend themselves to a massive, all-enveloping style,' said Attenborough.

'Comparing Richard II and Henry IV, you have the first one entirely in verse and the second in a language which becomes much more tainted and earthy, constantly moving back and forth between the court and pubs and streets.

'I think they're very, very different plays, and the moment we decided to do them in different auditoriums, with a white box in The Other Place, it was inevitable that they would be very different in style.

'Then you have to relate that to Henry V on the main stage, so you have this slightly paradoxical thing that the actors carry through but the style doesn't. But I think the actors would say that so far it has caused them very little problem.'

A few months ago another director was talking to me about his perception of a cycle of fashion in Shakespeare's plays, citing Troilus and Cressida as an example of a play which had come in from the cold in recent years and the histories as examples of plays which had moved in the other direction.

Michael Attenborough, however, is sceptical about this argument. He came to the RSC as a new writing specialist, and has directed such notable Stratford premieres as Peter Whelan's The Herbal Bed and David Edgar's Pentecost. But he has now directed four Shakespeare plays in succession and, just turned 50, feels he has discovered him all over again.

'I think on the whole Shakespeare's plays are not subject to fashion,' he said. …