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RSC Stratford, review: Wars of the Roses

Wars of the Roses, RSC Stratford, to June 4.

Review by Wynne Lang

This is a play where a lot happens. Sitting between two of Shakespeare’s best known history plays, Henry V and Richard III, it has a lot of ground to cover. Henry V’s ineffectual son Henry VI inherits the throne from his father but Richard Duke of York makes a counter-claim after winning the battle at St Albans.

It gets worse for the House of Lancaster when Henry agrees to disinherit his son, Edward. Henry’s wife, Margaret, is furious and vows to destroy York, enlisting her own army to bring him down. All this happens before the interval, so you have to have your wits about you to keep up.

The first half of the play belongs to Richard Duke of York, strongly played by Oliver Alvin-Wilson. He stakes his claim with authority and provides the necessary comparison to the weak Henry VI.

A note of sympathy here for Mark Quartley who plays Henry. It is a role that requires the opposite of the qualities that dominate a stage but he manages to convey how other-worldly and out of step he is with those around him. However his wife, Margaret, played by Minnie Hale, must be ‘a she-wolf’, filling the gap which her husband has vacated. Again, a tricky role as she is the only woman of significance in the play, but is not a character that shows any emotional depth - she is angry most of the time. The way she is described by the male characters also reminds us that modern sexual politics was very far from consideration when this play was written.

The power struggle continues in the second half, but it is the Duke of York’s three sons, alongside the Earl of Warwick, who keep the sands of loyalty shifting. Things take a turn for the worse when Edward, now king, decides to marry Elizabeth Woodville rather than the wife Warwick has chosen for him, and new alliances are formed with…Henry VI.

It is a structural weakness of the play that events which took some time to develop are presented as happening sequentially - in this case with almost absurd effect. However, it is knowingly acted with a wink and a nod to the absurdity, allowing humour to be injected, something the production tries to elicit at every appropriate opportunity.

While all this to-ing and fro-ing is going on the youngest son, Richard Duke of Gloucester, is waiting in the wings for his chance to grab power. Arthur Hughes is the young actor who takes on this stage-stealing role. He will later become the infamous Richard III and the seeds are sown for a character who will become one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains.

Richard is vilified by his enemies because of his disabilities and some of the insults are truly shocking to a modern audience. The fact that the actor playing him has a visible disability gives the insults and jibes a heightened impact.

This is a difficult play to stage for a modern audience, as much of the time is taken up in fighting and dying. The stage design goes some way to addressing this problem with the clever use of technology to bring the action closer to the audience and give the fighting a stronger visual impact. Also the fast pace of the directing stops these scenes becoming repetitious and tedious, a real danger in plays about warfare.

A word of advice- if you are booking your seats for this excellent production, read up a little on the Wars of the Roses and buy a programme so you can disentangle the family trees.

I am already booking my tickets to see Richard III.

Picture: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

Don't miss our review of Henry VI: Rebellion, the companion piece to Wars of the Roses.


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