The War of the Roses Part 1 and Part 2

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The War of the Roses Part 1 and Part 2

Presented by Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay, Sydney. January 5-February 14, 2009. Directed by Benedict Andrews. Adapted by Benedict Andrews and Tom Wright. Set design by Robert Cousins. Costume design by Alice Babidge. Lighting by Nick Schlieper. Music and sound designed by Max Lyandvert, live music composed and performed by Stefan Gregory. With Cate Blanchett (Richard II, Lady Anne), Brandon Burke (Edward IV), Peter Carroll (Northumberland, Gloucester), Marta Dusseldorp (Queen Margaret), Eden Falk (Henry VI), John Gaden (John of Gaunt, Falstaff, York), Steve Le Marquand (Suffolk), Ewen Leslie (Henry V), Hayley McElhinney (Queen Isabella, Rutland), Amber McMahon (Queen Elizabeth), Robert Menzies (Henry IV), Luke Mullins (Hotspur, Clifford, Richmond), Pamela Rabe (Duchess of Gloucester, Richard III), Emily Russell (Warwick, Duchess of York), and others.

The central symbol of the fragile nature of kingship in this production was an elaborate and carefully designed filigree crown that accompanied the actors throughout, beginning on Cate Blanchett's golden head for Richard II, and ending in the hands of a little girl on a grey, empty stage at the conclusion of Richard III. As it was handed through a sequence of seven kings, we were treated to something genuinely epic in conception, at times fragmented or inept, but just as often captivating and compelling. The brief as described in the publicity was that all eight of Shakespeare's plays telling the story of the wars of the roses were to be shown over two nights of about three and a half hours each. This is not quite what happened, as adapter/director Benedict Andrews's interest clearly lay with the two Richards, and he distributed the time accordingly: in Part 1, Richard II claimed the first half, and the Henries IV and V took over after the interval. For Part 2 the three Henry VI plays were compressed into the first half, and Richard III made up the second. The four segments had unifying elements, but were distinct in set design and performance style. This substantial project was chosen to showcase the Sydney Theatre Company's now-disbanded "Actors' Company", an ensemble of twelve who have developed several shows together over the course of three years. Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies were added as guest artists (along with several children in Part 2). The ensemble feel played a significant part in shaping the production, as actors switched roles without changing costume, or moved from one scene to another without exits and entrances. The women did not disguise their sex when playing male roles; all had feminine haircuts, with Pamela Rabe's dark, fringed pageboy style an amusing reference to Olivier's Richard III. With an array of t-shirts, tracksuits, jeans and button-down shirts giving a rehearsal-clothes look to most of the actors, Richard II's impeccable white suit was the only costume that contributed something to the interpretation. It told us instantly that we were watching someone fastidious, self-conscious, impractical. No other costume performed similar semiotic work, even when it would have been useful. Margaret's sole costume, for instance, was a cream, long-sleeved dress with an arrow-pleated skirt and gold high-heels--which made it hard for the audience to pick up that she had anything to do with leading Henry's armed forces.

While it does any production a disservice to review what is not there, some acknowledgement of what was cut seems to be demanded here to give a sense of the overall picture offered to the audience. 1 Henry VI was effectively lost altogether (only portions of the rose garden scene and the capture of Margaret kept), and 2 Henry IV, Henry Vand 2 Henry VI were cut so heavily as to make only token contributions. So we saw none of Hal's tavern pals except Falstaff, no Joan of Arc or Jack Cade, and believe it or not, no battle of Agincourt. The moral of the story: it is possible to cut a three hour play down to less than two and still produce something that succeeds excitingly on its own terms, but it is not possible to compress three plays into that allotment of time and hope to show anything much of substance. …


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