It was controversial before it began.
As soon as the casting was announced, certain quarters, where political correctness bells must ring at five minute intervals, denounced the project as offensive because only Caucasians had been cast in the company that would perform The Wars Of The Roses, now playing at the Rose Theatre Kingston in a revival directed by Sir Trevor Nunn. How could Sir Trevor be so crass, so unforgivably racist, as to not engage in colour-blind casting?
The tut-tutting could be heard in Equador and managed to find a mention in many of the reviews of the production, despite word-counts which govern the amount of criticism that some publications can provide.The most outrageous part of the criticism directed at Sir Trevor, who did himself no favours by taking the “historically accurate” defence, is not that it was so vicious or unrelenting or that it ignored his history as a champion of non-white performers, but that it was so selective.
Where were these complaints when the RSC staged Oppenheimer, both at Stratford Upon Avon and then in the West End? A cast of twenty-five, all white. Where were the howls of protest then? Or when the National Theatre staged The Doctor’s Dilemma? When the RSC, again, produced Death Of A Salesman? Or when commercial producers brought Hay Fever into the West End as a vehicle for Felicity Kendal or The Importance of Being Earnest for David Suchet? When Accolade played at the Finborough and then the St James Theatre, when the Donmar tackled My Night With Reg, Closer or Philadelphia, Here I Come? Or when Chichester staged The Rehearsal or Sheffield revived Racing Demon? As I remember them, all white casts – but no howls of protest.
More pertinently, where are the complaints now, just as Marianne Elliott’s production of Husbands and Sons starts its run at the National Theatre with, it seems, a completely Caucasian cast?
Why trumpet agitation about the casting of The Wars Of The Roses at Kingston if all white casts don’t offend you elsewhere?
I should say at once that I have no time for the notion that only Caucasian actors should appear in theatrical productions. Colour blind casting is completely fine with me as long as it works and the best person is cast in the role. Sometimes it just doesn’t work – for instance, when there was the idiotic casting of the Grandfather in Regent Park’s re-imagining of Ragtime (no disrespect to the actor; it was the notion of casting the role of a racist old white man with a non-white actor that was unfathomable).
As to who is the best for the role? Well, that should surely be a matter for the director and producers? After all, they are funding the production, not the taxpayer or some community purse. Where theatres are subsidised, there is a good argument that best practice benchmarks about diversity ought to be in place, no question. But otherwise, casting should be about appropriateness and quality, regardless of skin colour.
So, why did this particular production touch so many raw nerves and cause such a loud and sustained sense of agitation? There are probably two main reasons.
Firstly, this is Shakespeare, although Shakespeare channelled by John Barton and Peter Hall and specifically, originally, designed to be provocative and thrilling. In 1963. When it managed that without a furore about colour-blind casting. They took four plays – Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 and Richard III– distilled what they thought was the essence of them and refashioned them in a (then) bold and striking way.
Secondly, this is Sir Trevor Nunn and for some reason, presumably because he is “tainted” by his long association with musicals, what he does can be, and is, more easily derided by commentators that those whose work does not extend to musical theatre. Unfathomable, but there it is.
Over the last decade or so, there has been a deliberate campaign, led by the RSC and the National, but aided and abetted by others, practitioners and critics alike, to make Shakespeare more common, more representative of diverse modern life. People can speak with any regional accent in any part, regardless of the origin of the character they are playing, and can play any part regardless of the colour of their skin.
The focus is not so much on brilliant verse speaking or outstanding performances, but “making it real”. The thing is that respect for language and its possibilities (beauty and brutality), the connection of word and deed to character, and the manner of playing (technique, skill, insight) can easily result in “making it real”. That’s called acting.
For years now, the Opera world has been clamouring for singers who do more than “stand and deliver”. Change has occurred there, dramatic change; at the same time, an almost reverse change has occurred in the production of Shakespeare: standing and delivering the text is preferred to being lost in the lyrical beauty or emotional resonances of the Bard’s work. And, tragically, audiences have become used to being shouted at and simply accepting that some passages are indecipherable: they shrug, say they enjoyed it, and opine “That’s Shakespeare”.
There is a good argument that this decay in attitudes to performing and understanding Shakespeare began with Barton and Hall’s 1963 Wars Of The Roses, not because of what they achieved, but because of how subsequent generations interpreted or reacted to what they achieved.Barton and Hall set about to do at least two things: rescue the Henry VI plays from assumed unplayability; and adopt some (then) cutting-edge theatre presentation practices (notably Brechtian) to break the accepted mould when it came to staging Shakespeare. It worked. Rightly, their work is revered.
But it seems forgotten, almost, that the company they assembled were not short of classical acting skills, did not fail to understand the power and freedom Shakespeare’s text permits, and, most importantly, were adept at creating whole, real characters. David Warner, Peggy Ashcroft, Donald Sinden, Janet Suzman, Ian Holm, Charles Kay: this was not a company likely to “stand and deliver”. But embrace a new approach? Absolutely.
So, when this 2015 project was announced, the question was not about casting, it was simply “Why?” What is the point of restaging a 1963 breakthrough production unless you were intending to use it as a vehicle for a new breakthrough production, one stuffed with new ideas, new theatrical solutions? Accordingly, I assumed Sir Trevor intended to put his own stamp upon the Barton/Hall project, to make it a turning point in 2015 just as it had been in 1963.
I was wrong. Completely.
This is a perfectly serviceable production, much along the lines of the fare mostly served up by the RSC or the National these days. Indeed, taken as a whole, it is better than most productions of Shakespeare produced by those companies in recent times.
It is performed by actors ranging from poor to more than competent, but, with one or two exceptions, none capable of surprising or illuminating turns.Sir Trevor directs with assured authority. His intent is clear, the story-telling is straightforward, there are some wonderful stage images (albeit ones reminiscent of Les Miserables given the stop-frame motion, smoke and lighting) and it largely feels cosy, familiar, expected. There is no difficulty following the convoluted plot, understanding the motivations of warring factions.
The set and costumes work well enough (John Napier, Mark Friend and Mark Bouman) but there is nothing remarkable or especially intriguing about them. Stage effects vary – if you are going to revel in beheadings, stabbings and skewering, there ought to be blood – and so does the Paul Pyant lighting (there is an awkwardly absurd rendering of three moons in Edward IV where stifling laughter was near impossible).
Malcolm Ranson’s sword fight routines were quite dull, far short of the dangerous, menacing moves required.Nevertheless, there is some gold in them there hills.
Alex Waldmann provides a unique take on the lousy monarch that is Henry VI; he might not focus on religion or book learning as previous incarnations have, but, on the other hand, he plays the role with utter, compelling conviction, consistently, and with admirable emotional restraint. His is an easy monarch to love; an impossible monarch to obey or follow. Unlike his father, Henry V, he is not a man’s man.
Waldmann does not shy away from the character’s flaws, indeed he exposes them clearly, but his sweet puppy approach to the role provides a context which works and aids in understanding the machinations of his peers. Every word was spoken with feeling and understanding; he mastered the text rather than, as happened with others around him, being mastered by it. As good an example as any of the sage maxim “Less Is More” and the individual performance of the production.
There were other performers who gave specific instances of real interest: Imogen Daines showed some great spunk as Joan la Purcell; Michael Xavier and Joely Richardson were convincing as adulterous schemers oblivious to danger; Alexander Hanson delivered the Duke of York’s final speech with real flair; Robert Sheehan’s Richard dispatched Young Clifford (Laurence Spellman) with suitable glee, laying the foundations for the wretched revengeful monarch he would become; Timothy Walker and Geoff Leesley made the Earl of Warwick and Duke of Exeter consistently interesting; and Oscar Batterham gave many of his colleagues a first rate example to follow in his splendidly judged, very moving, speech as the Son Who Has Killed His Father.
But in many other respects, almost all actually, I found the performances not bad necessarily, but dull, listless, predictable and supremely forgettable.
Some were unforgivable – Rufus Hound as Jack Cade was particularly egregious and there are no plaudits for Robert Sheehan’s camp turn as the Duke of Alençon. Overacting is never the answer, whatever the question, in Shakespeare.
One of the reasons Batterham’s excellent speech at the end of the first Act of Edward IV stood out in this production was because it was a quiet, sensitive moment. But that’s not all. It was a moment when restrained emotional intensity was to the fore, where the beauty of the words created the dramatic and resonant overtones which swept powerfully over the audience. Where the actor let Shakespeare lead him to glory.
This is a tactic most of the company could adopt. It’s not enough to look earnest and speak quietly; the words dictate the character if you let them. Using body and voice to enliven the words reaps results – as Waldhamm, Batterham and, in that one speech, Hanson demonstrated; just speaking them while adopting a stance is insufficient.
Sir Trevor seems very wedded to plays opening with cast members milling about onstage or with plays proceeding with cast members gathered in aisles or to the sides of stages, for no discernible purpose, except perhaps for some judicious “rhubarb, rhubarb” crowd declamations. And so it was here. Pointless and occasionally frustrating.
Since Barton and Hall changed the perception of Shakespeare with their 1963 production, the world has moved on. There have been luminous productions which have eclipsed the achievements made in 1963: Ian Judge’s Twelfth Night for the RSC, the Dench/Hopkins Anthony and Cleopatra at the National, Greg Doran’s RSC Tennant, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Richard II, Maria Aberg’s RSC As You Like It, the all-male Twelfth Night from the Globe, the Donmar’s Othello and King Lear, and the Hall/Dench/Chris A Midsummer Night’s Dream(at this venue, five years ago) to name a few.
Each of those productions, and many others, showed Shakespeare in a shimmering light of poetical possibility. Countless others have diminished that possibility deliberately, seeking to “make it real” or “accessible”. To my mind, productions of Shakespeare need to have a single purpose: to illuminate the text. Colour-blind casting is only useful if it serves that one end: illumination of the text.Sir Trevor’s remount of the Barton/Hall 1963 turning point needed to go further: it needed fresh eyes, fresh cuts and additions, fresh insights. An opportunity to update or revitalise the work has been missed.
What worked exceptionally well, was fresh and invigorating, in 1963 has not the same effect now. The kind of presentation being introduced by Barton and Hall then is now old hat.This is not to say that this version of The Wars Of The Roses is bad or not worth seeing. That’s not the case. It is worth noting that I saw the production some weeks after its press day. It may have diminished over time; it may have improved. But, certainly, our views are about different performances of the same production. And my concern here is with the overall impression and impact of the work, not the individual components.
The Wars Of The Roses is worth seeing, but perhaps not in one nine plus hour sitting. This is an example of institutionalised, safe, modern Shakespeare: full of shouting, lewd jokes, poses and swagger, with the occasional truly good performance to shatter the domesticity. Understandable, but not thrilling.
In contrast, the Young Chekhov season at Chichester is thrilling, with new texts, superb emotionally restrained and honest acting, and clever, visionary direction. That season might change outlooks about Chekhov;The War Of The Roses is unlikely to change anyone’s view about Shakespeare (unless, naturally, this is their first experience of the form).
Next year Ivo van Hove brings his Kings of War to the Barbican. In four hours, he dispatches Henry V and VI and Richard III – half the time of The Wars Of The Roses and an extra King! It remains to be seen whether or not Kings of War will be a turning point in the same way The Wars Of The Roses was in 1963 or just more “modern Shakespeare” as The Wars Of The Roses is in 2015.
But it just might be.