The Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival 2009 present THE WAR OF THE ROSES, Part 1 & Part 2 by William Shakespeare adapted by Tom Wright & Benedict Andrews at the Sydney Theatre.
Before we talk of the present production under the title THE WAR OF THE ROSES there will be a preamble of information that I think is relevant. ( Skip forward if you wish.)
Shakespeare wrote two tetralogies or eight plays chronicling a turbulent 88 years of English History (from the 1380's to the 1480's) covering the reigns of English monarchs from that of Richard II to that of Richard III. They comprise RICHARD II, HENRY IV PARTS I and II and HENRY V; Then HENRY VI PARTS I, II AND III AND RICHARD III.
Last year THE ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY after a two and a half year preparation presented all eight of these plays under the title of This England - The Histories, in history's chronological order. It meant, to see all plays, it required 22 hours of performance,four days of theatre. And this approach to Shakespeare's history plays is not new. In 1964 John Barton and Peter Hall did them all (that is only the Henry VI 's and Richard III) in two days as THE WAR OF THE ROSES. (A 10 hour version was adapted for television.) "It was mind-blowingly original. The directors took outrageous liberties with the texts to fuse the grand design together. They rewrote and reshaped Shakespeare. (Barton added over a thousand lines of dialogue.) Creative vandalism; great theatre."
"The idea that the two tetralogies compose distinct epic designs, or Henriads, is a critical commonplace. Shakespeare clearly saw the outline of two large structures as he penned the eight plays. It's also self-evident that the plays are chronologically and thematically coherent." "Shakespeare based his history plays on various sources, drawing upon everything from medieval chronicles and Tudor propaganda to romances and rumours.... His primary source of information was Raphael Holinshed,whose CHRONICLES published in 1586-1587, comprised a complete history of the English-speaking world." "It is important to emphasise that this is Shakespeare's interpretation of the events of English history with a heavy dramatic licence and a nod to his royal patron, Elizabeth Tudor, the granddaughter of the victorious Henry VII" (Richmond from the Richard III play.) History was shaped to fit the demands of the new era, the propaganda machine for Elizabeth Tudor. Most people know Richard III as a hunchback villain from Shakespeare's play rather than the real Richard, who by all accounts was rather a nice man. Because he was viewed as an enemy to the Tudor line, Shakespeare had to present Richard as a truly Machiavellian villain and his conqueror, Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, Richmond, as England's glorious saviour. Creative historical vandalism; great theatre. The historian, John Julius Norwich, reminds us "Shakespeare was not an historian; he was a dramatist. The play was the thing." And he needed to make a living.
"But the histories go beyond pomp and circumstance and are more than propaganda. They pose serious philosophical questions that go straight to the heart of Elizabethan political life: What is the best way to educate a prince?..... What is the proper way to rule?..... Is the king divinely appointed? And, most important, is it ever morally right to kill a bad king?..... Machiavelli's treatise on statecraft, THE PRINCE, written in 1513..... was not an abstract study by a scholar removed from the sources of power but an introduction to realpolitik by a real statesman who knew the world too well. "Politics," he wrote, "have no relation to morals."..... Machiavelli asserted that the achievement of political power necessitated unscrupulous methods and that the ethical man was an ineffectual ruler. It didn't matter what a prince did behind the scenes; he only had to make sure that he APPEARED honourable....Machiavelli's cold appraisal of government and power had the same cataclysmic effect on the Elizabethans that Darwin's ON THE ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES had on the Victorians..... During the Renaissance the medieval image of the Devil was replaced by the Machiavel.... According to one count,the Machiavel appeared more than four hundred times on the Elizabethan stage...... Machiavelli's ideas influence almost every ruler Shakespeare created: Richard III sums up Machiavelli's moral isolationism when he says "I am myself alone ." And Henry Bolingbroke is referred to as "this vile politician"..... To use the critic A.P.Rossiter's phrase, the histories are about "the survival of the slickest."
"Shakespeare is generally considered a conservative, but one with irony and compassion. His plays are seen as either subversive or elitist.... he confirms and doubts, both at once, which is what makes the plays multifaceted and challenging. His views are sometimes reverent, sometimes cynical...... Despite Shakespeare's understanding of the dangers of power and his fascination with Machiavelli's pragmatic view of kingship, in his plays and tragedies, the king is God's vicar on earth. Regicide could only lead to anarchy,the annihilation of cosmic and domestic order." Restoration to kingship, to God's anointed, was how equilibrium and peace could be achieved. Whether this was Shakespeare's belief or necessity in the age of censorship remains unknown.
Now, before we look at this new play and production THE WAR OF THE ROES by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews adapted from Shakespeare just one more interesting fact should be pointed out. "Shakespeare wrote the tetralogies in reverse historical sequence. The first (the three Henry VI plays and Richard III ) was composed between 1588 and the early 1590's. It is early, rough-edged Shakespeare. The second (Richard II, and the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V) dates from between 1595 and 1599. It represents the dramatist at the height of his artistic power. The 1590's was a decade in which Shakespeare became Shakespeare." Putting the plays, then, in the right historical order (Richard II to Richard III), you put them in the wrong artistic order. "The audience could have an eerie feeling that Shakespeare is going off. Losing his touch, as he moves through time."
So, extremely subjectively, I shall try to recall my response to the all day performance of THE WAR OF THE ROSES. Then, I will try to grapple with the aftermath, my aftermath, of it.
Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews have spent some time on this collaboration. The event was announced over a year ago,so at least, a year, if not longer, in preparation. Mr Andrews and his company of artists have had 15 weeks of rehearsal. Nearly all of the artists have worked with Mr Andrews before. There was probably a language of familiarity. Cate Blanchett and Robert Menzies are two invited guest collaborators. All of this augurs well.
I understand, it is approximately 22 hours of Shakespearean text that has been reduced, de-constructed, to a little more than one third of the original, to 8 hours. I approach the experience believing it not to be Shakespeare but rather a new play adapted on the source material of the 8 plays, and as Shakespeare did for the Elizabethans, make a work relevant for a Sydney (Australian) audience in 2009. The plays should have more than pomp and circumstance and propaganda. They should pose philosophical questions or at least propositions that will go straight to the heart of what it is to be identified as an Australian today, living in the modern world. And how to live in it well.
I have come to regard Mr Wright as one of Australia's most interesting (and prolific) playwrights. Mr Andrews, I am less sure of, having never really understood the many experiences of his creativity that I have, still, voluntarily, witnessed. (The most interesting and successful for me being his work with this same company of actors (the STC Actors Company), on his "Big Brother version of THE SEASON OF SARSAPARILLA in 2007. It is, then, with a mixed apprehension that I sit in my seat.
The proscenium is curtained in black cloth. The lights dimmed. The curtain rose on a magnificent vista of the full stage. Centre stage, down front, sitting on a chair is Cate Blanchett,who we know is playing the King, Richard II. She is dressed in cream slacks and long sleeved blouse, shoes, her hair worn casually and long with a golden crown upon her head. Scattered in poses, to almost the full depth and breadth of the stage, around this seated figure are 8 other actors, facing front, all dressed in various clothing of the contemporary world. Raining down from the tower above the stage are three curtains of gold leaf in a beautifully heavy and steadily consistent fall. It rains and rains. It is either representing a Golden Age of order with the anointed King on his throne, or, I cogitate, a symbol of decadence, the wasteful display of wealth. I am able to drink it in, savour and admire the beauty of the picture created by director and designers. (Set: Robert Cousins; Costumes: Alice Babidge; Lighting: Nick Schlieper.) I review my experience, for no one moves and no one speaks for some considerable theatrical time. From a purely emotional response I am taken, over the time I am given, to a cerebral contemplation. I am looking at Art. What is real is not what is happening on stage but my experience of consciousness of being in the theatre looking at an artistic vision. Aesthetic distancing is in motion.
Finally,someone speaks. But it is formal. The actors all speak, at different times, but they do not move. They are just voices, all but disembodied (for, we can see them),their physical instrument does not engage except in concentrated stillness. They talk directly out to us. It is difficult to follow the text for it takes sometime to learn to identify who is talking (let alone who they are representing) for all of the actors are "miked" and as a result, the sound is coming, from all of them, from the same technical speakers hung in the auditorium, and out of habit, my eye and ear co-ordination takes some time to form a new way of attending to the play, I keep looking to the speaker and then searching the faces of the scattered actors to discover who is talking (more aesthetic distancing perhaps?), but fortunately, I studied this text in High School and so have a gist of the truncated machinations of a bored and spoiled prince acting out petulantly with some of his subjects, plunging himself into a precarious state of subject rebellion, for one of them, Henry Bolingbroke (Robert Menzies) is a powerful and ambitious subject and will not brook the losing of all his rightful inheritance. It is like watching a radio play, and it goes on and on for maybe 45 minutes. The only movement being the falling gold glitter, creating the optical illusion of a moving floor, and the restless leashed in physicality of Ms Blanchett, expressing itself accumulatively with the crossing and uncrossing of her right leg over her left and the impatient right ankle circling the foot on its apparently flexible hinge.
Mr Gaden as John of Gaunt does gently physically interact with Mr Menzies at last, with a turn to face him, maybe a hand on shoulder, and finally moves to lie on the ground after the delivery of one of the most famous speeches in the play. "This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle...." and dies, to be covered, deeply, by the falling leaf. (Occasionally, I laugh at the hazard of the falling glitter, for often it gets into the mouths of the actors, sometimes before they speak, sometimes while they speak (I guess it is an unintended example of further aesthetic distancing? - it works!!!!)
At last. The King under threat from the rebel Bolingbroke removes the crown and lays it on the ground and retreats to the back wall where he lolls. The rain of gold flickers to a halt. The sound of leaf blowers commences (an occasion of nervous laughter from some of the audience in response to such an iconic Australian gesture and noise) and both actors and stage crew move about the stage and sweep the gold debris into a big heap against the back wall of the otherwise empty stage, upon which Cate Blanchett sits with the crown in her hands in contemplation. This picture, too, has beauty, both physical and intellectual.
The actors have their full instruments at last, permissibly, available to them. They move, they interact, they engage the poetry of the second half of the act (truncated,though it be) and Ms Blanchett and Mr Menzies engage in a blazing and beautiful poetic battle of wills. At last. The Shakespearean text is allowed to have its full expressive possibilities given by the whole instrument of the actor. And it is given principally by two masterful musicians of communication.
This is especially so from Ms Blanchett. Here is a beautiful figure and face, both readily obedient to her every command, supplemented by a meticulous and ironic brain and supported by a mellifluous musical voice. These are rare gifts even individually for an actor/artist but here they are all present in one miraculous package, and when in full flight there is no aesthetic distancing but a high dive and surrender, from me, to the reality of being in the presence of an Artist that transcends either just the emotional, or the cerebral experience of each moment, and sweeps you into a place where all is simultaneous enlightenment and feeling. This is a thrill. This is why one goes to the theatre, in the hope of having such an experience. Here is an Art. Here is ART. All of the actors in this company have these gifts to varying degrees of communication but what distinguishes Ms Blanchett is her uniform mastery and control of all the elements of the actor's craft. And what distinguishes her most, is physical presence. Her body even in repose is electric and resonating with a psychic depth that demands attention. When in action it is simply expressed, and no matter the scale of action, there is a magnitude of meaning: deadly serious, highly amusing and every other note in between. Elegant, economic and weighted. Balletic, gymnastic and radiantly still.
The ticket price is worth just the witnessing of this last hour of the first act. My precious time given here in this theatre will balance all of my other recent thwarted experiences in the search for transcendence. For me it is a rare opportunity to see a great artist on an Australian stage. It is like the blessing I had when Joan Sutherland entered from the preposterous gazebo setting of her first heroine in Offenbach's THE TALES OF HOFFMAN and sang live in front of me. How did she do it? How does she do it? It seems effortless and I am so happy. Why? In both cases, the experience in the moment are not at all bombast or histrionic. In reflection it is all so unremarkable, but in retrospect one is definitely left with the impression of having experienced something great. It was a similar remembrance that I have had a few other times: Glenda Jackson in her performance of Hedda; Vanessa Redgrave as Cleopatra in Shakespeare's ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA. Unimpressed while watching, staggered at the completion of the play. I believe I have seen something great I remember recalling. So here. So, with Ms Blanchett in this journey of a king from an arrogant, self-dramatizing, self infatuated man to one who is genuinely moving and tragic. Whatever the theatrical theoretical explorations (maybe a stab at Artaudian Theory ??) Mr Andrews may have been exploring in the first hour, this last hour when Ms Blanchett was unleashed from her chair is great theatre. Mr Menzies is never better than in his interaction here with Ms Blanchett.
So, interval came and I was relatively excited, even though I knew that Richard II was dead and I wouldn't get to see Ms Blanchett until much later that night, for whatever else she had done, she had reacquainted me with the dazzling poetry of Shakespeare's Richard II and more is to come. I know the next two plays. More Shakespeare, mmmmm, bliss.
Part One, Act Two: This is Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 and Henry V. These plays are part of Shakespeare's later output as an artist and the textual poetry is highly regarded by critics. The play is famous for its comedy and the complex characterisation of Falstaff. Some regard Falstaff as Shakespeare's greatest comic figure. Some, that Falstaff is Shakespeare's greatest human. The Henry IV plays take up most of this two hour traffic on the stage.
"The title HENRY IV is somewhat misleading. Henry is rarely on stage, and at times he seems to exist solely as a peg upon which to hang the more interesting tale of Prince Henry (Prince Hal) and Falstaff. HENRY IV is ostensibly about Henry's struggle to maintain the throne against the Percys, the clan that helped him to attain it in RICHARD II. But the play centres on Prince Hal (Ewen Leslie) and his development from jokester into king. Two plots, one comic and one serious, are represented, respectively, by Falstaff (John Gaden) and the Boar's Head Tavern in Eastcheap and by King Henry (Robert Menzies) and the court at Westminster. Hal is the hinge upon which the two swing back and forth.... in HENRY IV PART I, Hal grows up when he kills Hotspur (Luke Mullins) in his father's cause, and in PART II he truly becomes a king when he banishes Falstaff." ("Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.")
In this adaptation of the text by Mr Wright and Mr Andrews the texts have been shrunk principally to only four of the original Dramatis Personae: King Henry IV, Falstaff, Prince Hal and Hotspur. (Of course there are other actors who fill the function of smoothing out the textual elisions but they are of relatively little import, other than convenience for the writer's/director's intents). But what Mr Andrews does do, is create and introduce a major presence on the stage as a palpable influence and "character" to the action of this play: a Musician. This musician (Stefan Gregory) during the reveal of the action of the play accompanies, sometimes confronts, and even for long stretches even dominate the other characters. The music of the musician becomes another "language" to that of the actors (and Shakespeare). It becomes a presence, maybe the presence, for the audience to attend to, to interpret the play.
When the curtain rises on the stage it is empty except for the musician upstage right (the audience's point of view) (the director's intention is indelibly flagged) with his back to us, with his amplifier and other necessary paraphernalia, which includes a guitar which he manipulates to create sound/noise. It is the first "voice" to speak. (Sound design by Max Lyandvert.)
The confrontation between Hal and Hotspur is mostly reduced to dumbshow, that is, physical action and metaphoric animal mime, to represent, in substitute, much of their poetry. The relationship with Falstaff has some of its poetic exchanges in tact but even here the relationship is graphically presented in physicalites, often substituting the written language. Mr Andrews goes so far as to represent the intimacy of the debauchery between this old man, Falstaff and the young Prince in an extended "head job" (oral Sex) given by the prince to his friend. (This is indeed a "modern" interpretation and reasonable, but may be overstatement.) It is regrettable as well that the teeming life of the other companions of the Boar's Head Tavern (Doll Tearsheet and especially Mistress Quickly etc.) has been excised for the intentions of the new play, because much of the famous comedy of the play is also excised. There is little humour in this world, it is one of unrelieved decadence. It is as if Mr Andrews believes "that text (has) been a tyrant over meaning, and advocate(s), instead for a theatre (and a story telling mode) made up of a unique language (the musical accompaniment and "mime"), halfw ay between gesture and thought." Shakespeare is abandoned and Artaud embraced.
Both Mr Gaden and Mr Menzies give valiant renditions of what is left of the originals. Mr Leslie is likewise strong in his effort for communicable clarity. Unfortunately, Mr Mullins, because of the editing, loses out in making a clear mark as Hotspur. I, personally was waiting for one of them to demand of the Musician's input: less maybe more. It became for me an agony of presence, of experience. Truly a Theatre of Cruelty.
So, it was a blessed relief when a ruched curtain fell across the width of the proscenium, and the music silenced. This began a 20 minute, or so, truncation of HENRY V. HENRY V is the only history play that doesn't revolve around the seizure of the crown. But Mr Wright and Andrew's in pursuant of their gradually revealing intentions, brilliantly reduce the text to a series of careful interchanges of the poetry of Shakespeare's famous figure of the Chorus (Different representatives of the company) and the major speeches of Henry V (Ewen Leslie). The emphasis of our two contemporary writers is to underline both textually and graphically that Henry V is not a perfect man. A flawed man, one who'll stop at nothing to get what he wants, a ruthless war machine, "a leader who orders his men to cut their prisoner's throats in violation of the medieval war code." "...If I begin the battery once again, / I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur / Till in her ashes she lie buried. /The gates of mercy shall all be shut up; / And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart- / In liberty of bloody hand shall range / With conscience wide as hell: mowing like grass / Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants...... The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand / Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; / Your fathers taken by the silver beards, / And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls; / Your naked infants spitted on spikes, / Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused / Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry / At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen." The textual remains in this adaptation underlines this horror of the necessities of a leader in the brutality of war. Each of the textual choices for Henry are juxtaposed with speeches from the Chorus which famously invite us to imagine with him the setting of the play. We are invited to be complicit with this ruthless carnage.
Visually, Henry apppears at first naked from the waist up, drenched in glistening sweat with the crown upon his head; then on his next entrance covered in shiny black streams of mud or oil; and next with the rivers of blood layered and streaming down the torso. Layerings of the cost of victory. The lighting helps it to gleam and shine heroically in its sheen.
Next we are taken to the wooing of the french princess Katherine (Luke Mullins) by this bloodied soldier. It is chilling in this production's telling. At the back of the stage, Katherine is dressed by her servants, delicately,in a summer dress (contemporary), while downstage dripping with the physical cost of war, in halting French and English, the two progenitors of the royal line attempt to come to terms for marriage. It is astonishingly poignant and simultaneously dreadful. The figure of their loins appears, Henry VI. But it does not feel to be a time of rejoicing. The curtain falls.
This is altogether an impresssive section of the production. I quietly note it is when the poetry of Shakespeare is once again (as in RICHARD II ) placed upfront and centre,unencumbered by extraneous sound and alternative "directorial language" that power and clarity are achieved by this production team. Once again the heart and the brain are engaged. Congratulations to Mr Leslie and the Chorus speakers and to the fragile delicacy of Mr Mullins as Katherine.
A two hour dinner break.
Part Two, Act One. This act of the production comprises the HENRY VI plays Part I, II,and III. These plays are the earliest written in the cycle and are regarded as primitive in the writing, in comparison to what we have so far experienced. It is rarely seen in its entirety. "The plot is a sweeping panorama; there are no heroes just a succession of characters who temporarily hold centre stage and then quickly depart."
From the marriage between Henry V and Katherine, one hoped that out of that match would come the ultimate perfect King. But it doesn't happen. Eighteen months later Henry is dead. He leaves a baby son as a King, a child he has never seen and the nation declines. Rival factions broil for power. The two sides meet in the Temple garden, and in symbolic action pluck white and red roses that prophesies the Wars of the Roses: "....this brawl today, / grown to this faction in the Temple Garden, / Shall send between the red and the white / A thousand to death and deadly night." What follows is a parade of battles and death. Hennry VI (Eden Falk) is weak and ill, his wife Margaret of Anjou (Marta Dusseldorp) is forced to arm herself for her family's survival in an alliance with Suffolk ( Steve Le Marquand ). The House of York begins an internecine battle within its own ranks for power, whilst fighting the Lancastrians, and gradually "a unique voice begins to take shape, which speaks out loud and bold: "Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile, And cry "Content!" to that which grieves my heart, And wet my cheeks with artificial tears, And frame my face to all occasions." It is the voice of Richard Of Gloucester (Pamela Rabe), who ultimately becomes Ricahrd III.
The curtain rises and we see downstage in an otherwise empty pace, across the width of the stage, a broad oblong shaped box,its sides marked by flourescent tubes which the actors negotiate with various gymnastic techniques to step over to enter and exit. Scattered within the box are plastic flowers of various kinds and colours; a large industrial sized, yellow, clearly marked bag of plain flour, and bottles of red liquid.
Most of the text of these three plays has been expurgated and in its place there is the merest verbal guide to the events of the story. Augmenting the text is, mostly, once again, a dumb show of physical gestures. In this case each of the assassinations, murders or deaths in battle are ritualized. In each case the perpetrator of the "demise" finds the bottle of red liquid (symbolising blood), ingests it into their mouth and then sprays it over the face and body of the "victim". Then they would go to the large industrial sized yellow bag of plain flour, take a handful and throw it over the victim (symbolising ....???). There are many, many deaths in this 80-90 minute sequence of the play "....a thousand to death..." was prophesied at the Temple garden and the ritual action is continued over and over and over and over again. Ad Nauseam. I lost count (I think I became unconscious at some point.) This seemed to be "a proposal (of) a theatre in which violent physical images (would ) crush and hypnotize the sensibility of the spectataor....a theatre that would induce a trance..." Unfortunately I was not susceptible to the hypnoses and instead became, in stages, slightly intrigued, followed by exasperated, bored, irritated and ultimately bemused at the persistent exaggeration of the direction. (I felt that considering the number of sprayed blood and thrown flour turns there were, that the time taken by this ritual, may have taken, if I had had a stop watch, at least 30 minutes of the stage action, it might have been more interesting to have had some of that time substituted by the re-interpolation of some of Shakespeare's abandoned text for the actors to "spray" and "throw" at each other.) My consciousness as an audience member gave me permission to disassociate from the performance and take on these musings as well as a growing sense of the cruelty I had inflicted on my body to ask it to sit for so long in this seat. Self inflicted masochism. Masochism.
What of the offers that the actors were making? I have no memory except an admiration for their committment and stamina in doing it. Who could care, since the actors in my experience of Act One of Part Two, had been reduced / deconstructed to puppets of the director's vision. Their individual gifts, talents and strengths had been blanded an blended to the service of the director. The point seemed to be to underline the stupid repetition of foolishness of man kind. The point was grasped early in the proceedings but it was re-iterated for what seemed forever. (If this had not been in the 5th and 6th hour of my experience, I may have had a different view, but since I had weathered a great deal of Mr Andrews intentions thus far, I had gathered his methods and lost patience.) At last Richard of Gloucester "takes it upon himself to murder HenryVI,.... Margaret is banished. Edward IV and his "painted queen" Elizabeth begin their reign; the Yorkists have prevailed. Interval.
I staggered to the foyer, to the water cooler. I do not notice much excitement from my fellow members of the audience. I see several groups of them leave the theatre, never to return. I consider such a choice. But I return to my seat. Masochism is rampant. (Once a Catholic, always a Catholic, I guess.)
The lights dim to blackness. The curtain rises on a vision by this artistic team of the world of Shakespeare's English History plays, deconstructed to a children's play ground. A metal slippery slide, a push-me spin me merry-go-round, a two seater set of swings and a tightly constructed metal set of monkey bars. As in the very first act, we have a rain of glitter, this time black (ash) that cascades from the skies for most of the performance time left. A reductio ad abursurdum, a banality of cerebral construction. I find it breath taking in its boldness.
The principal character of this act is Richard of Gloucester (Pamela Rabe) who in due course of the action is crowned Richard III and then is confronted with a "rebel" army led by the Earl Of Richmond (Luke Mullins) and is unkinged by death on the battlefield of Bosworth. Richmond is to become Henry VII, the grandfather of Elizabeth, the Tudor monarch, one of Shakespeare's patrons. Who we engage with here, in harmony with the physical vision of this world, is a slatternly trailer trash dressed brat (Memories of Amanda Plummer from a Quentin Tarantino film come to me) from the television reality show called Brat Camp who seems to be in desperate need of a Super Nanny to bring her into line. However, her physical and verbal abuses and humiliations ,which end in directed murder, go on unabated and we watch a pre-pubescent female psychopath in full rampage with no conscience and unfortunately little humour, to become the boss or queen of the playground. She wears a tiara. A school bully to be reckoned with. The hair, wig, reminds of Dee Dee Ramone and the photographs in the newspapers remind one another of pop star: Chrissie Amphlett from the Divinyls, and I hoped that Richard would sing something about the fine line between pleasure and pain (she didn't). ( I bet if Barrie Kosky had been directing this work he would, but Benedict is no fun. No fun ever.) The most interesting sequence in this act is to watch the struggle between Richard and Lady Anne (Cate Blanchett), to observe the techniques of both these actors in close comparison.
Pamela Rabe as this "monstrous clown" relishes the choices of interpretation that she and her director have invented and discovered and they are played to the hilt. Much courage and risk is embraced. It is a matter of taste whether you buy into it or not. I was too battered by the all day experience to do so. I recommend to attend the two halves with a considerable time break.
So, what have the writers, Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews wrought for us in Sydney in a Festival Season in 2009. Mr Wright following on from his recent adaptation of THE WOMEN OF TROY presents us with another play from the Theatre of Despair, another play of relentless moral nihilism. Nothing much else. This time it takes 8 hours to get the message instead of the less than two hours of TROY. Much of what makes Shakespeare great:the language, is erased to achieve a tale that tells us once again that the world is, excuse my language,a "fucked up" place. "Oh Horror. Oh Horror." In its place we have a deconstruction to mostly physical pantomime and repeated rituals of mind numbing obviousness.
In the program notes Monsieur Michel Foucault is quoted as saying "The role of history will.... be to show that laws deceive, that kings wear masks, that power creates illusions, and that historians tell lies." Machiavelli told the Medieval world (Shakespeare learnt it from him, one presumes). My favourite is Joseph Conrad who after writing THE HEART OF DARKNESS, observed, "Man is a vicious animal. His viciousness must be organised. Crime is a necessary condition of organised existence. Society is fundamentally criminal-or it would not exist.... For myself, I look at the future from the depths of a very dark past, and I find I am allowed nothing but fidelity to an absolutely lost cause, to an idea without a future."
To get to the Sydney Theatre today, I turned off my television, from news of the Gaza "WAR". Iraq. Afghanistan. States of War in Africa, South America, the Russias, India and Pakistan. And elsewhere. Even for instance here: The troubled Three Ms estate (ironically Shakespearean: Macbeth, Macduff and Malcolm Ways) at Rosemeadow in south western Sydney. As I write this I can see a photograph in front of me of three of our democratically elected "kings", one a President, and two Prime Ministers. One of these our ex- Prime Minister receiving the Medal of Freedom, "for his efforts as an ally in fighting terrorism". I hardly need an 8 hour reminder of the world as "a fucked-up place." What I would like my experience in the theatre to be as well, in this 8 hours, is some guidance as to how to live optimistically in this world. How to continue to commit and contribute to society with some sense of hope that man may, just may, evolve from the moral devolution that history tells us of, into something better. That, as a letter writer to the editor of the SMH today tells us (19th Jan.) in relation to the story telling responsibilities of Hollywood "We need to be reminded even in Hollywood's often grotesque manner, that the human spirit, morality and love cannot be completely extinguished by even the monstrous abominations that can be committed." If you erase the poetry from the plays you might also be erasing the hopeful proof that man has other more redeeming skills than bloody, cyclic murder.
This is another production directed by Mr Andrews that I have paid good money for. I, willingly, elect, to attend his work, I am genuinely interested in the work. But my growing conclusion is that Mr Andrews sees himself as an auteur without responsibilities to his audience. He seems to me to be anti-theatre. Definitely, my view is, he seems to be anti-writer. The deconstructions of Chekov, Calderon, Albee and several other of Shakespeare's works: Julius Caesar, A Midsummer's Night Dream have been for me simply a vandalism of other people's art to serve some vision of his own. It seems to me work designed for a cerebral elite that implies indifference even hostility, to his ordinary audience. An artist cultivating his own alienation, a common theme of Aestheticism, Decadence, and Symbolism prompting a continuing rejection of bourgeoisie taste and morality. Now, in theory, there may be nothing wrong with that, but in practice it has resulted in a lot of experiences in the theatre, for me, of unadulterated agony. It is a pity that he continues to use these Temples of Bourgeois Culture, subsidised by the very people he seems to want to be cruel too. At least other theorists set up their own companies to prove their conceptions of Art: Meyerhold, Brecht, Grotowski etc. (Artaud never put his theories to the test himself, or couldn't, and sadly after a long battle with drug taking spent the last 12 years of his life in an Asylum.)
In this conception of THE WAR OF THE ROSES, I see a vandalism of Shakespeare and an attempt to explore the theories of Artaud as applied to these texts. I am basically affronted by the title page of the program where we are told that this is THE WAR OF THE ROSES (which of course, Shakespeare never set out to write, and, this play is much more than that as it also covers Richard II and The HenryIV's Part 1 and 2. Not historically part of the War of The Roses - dramatic licence.) Part 1 and part 2 by William Shakespeare. Adapted by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews. I would be happier if it were: THE WAR OF THE ROSES, Adapted by Tom Wright and Benedict Andrews from the plays of Shakespeare. Pedantic, I know but crucial to my expectations if I were just an ordinary theatre goer. I have an inkling into what I am going to see. A play by two contemporary writers using the work of Shakespeare as a springboard.
The last observation that I would like to make is that I feel that Mr Andrews is also anti-actor. The practice of this production requires a stamina and committment from this company, who I think are in the best vocal and imaginative form they have been in since THE LOST ECHO. I observed for instance Ms McMahon in the first act of Part One standing upstage on a single spot for almost one hour and three quarters. She neither moved or spoke. Finally she walked (tottered??!!) downstage for eight or nine steps, spoke eight or ten lines and exited. This is a remarkable feat of concentration and I feel it should be noted. But it is an act of Cruelty on the part of the Director. There are many other instances of herculean commitment from this team of actors. It seems this set of actors have been placed into a "trance" by the mesmerist "Benno". At least Barrie Kosky generally performs every night with his company and experiences the arduous demands that he makes along with his team. I would like to invite / dare Mr Andrews to similarly commit himself to the rigours of his theoretical practice. On stage in dumb show for at least Act One of Part One. Maybe the whole time. He could alternate with Mr Le Marquand in the carrying of actors and props in the last Act - seemingly his only acting responsibility for the last two hours.
In summary, I enjoyed the last hour of Act One Part One. I enjoyed the 20 minute adaptation of Henry V at the end of the second act of Part One. I enjoyed the scene between Richard III and Lady Anne in the beginning of act two Of Part Two. This new Australian play will probably never be seen again. Go if you want a continuity of the development of the theatre as an art form in Sydney. If it is a comprehensible or entertaining or inspiring night in the theatre don't go. If you want to see a great actress then you must see Act One of Part One: Cate Blanchett is a miracle. The Gate Theatre Dublin's FAITH HEALER or the brilliant production of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma's NO DICE are highly recommended other choices.
Sorry for taking so much space, but this is an important piece of Sydney Theatre History. Least of all because it marks the last performances of The Sydney Actors Company.
Playing now until 14 February. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.