Readers of ‘Socialist Review’, you have about three weeks to book for a truly exhilarating dramatic experience. At the Haymarket theatre, 12 young men (well, they all looked young to me, which may not be the same thing) under the direction of Edward Hall smash, slash, slither and shriek their way through a tremendous performance of ‘Rose Rage’, an adaptation in two parts of William Shakespeare’s three ‘Henry VI’ plays. These were the first of Shakespeare’s plays. They were written in 1591 or 1592, at the end of the Elizabethan age, when friends of the queen were worried what would happen when she died. She had no children, and her supporters feared a return to the chaos and wars of the past, in particular the Wars of the Roses that divided English rulers and killed hundreds of thousands of English citizens in the second half of the 15th century.
William Shakespeare was not a revolutionary. He owed his brilliance as a playwright not to sympathy with the revolutionaries, but to an understanding and insight into all human beings, including revolutionaries. A familiar theme of all his history plays may well have been to warn his audiences of the dangers of the breakdown of law and order, and a consequent collapse into anarchy. But he was far too sensitive a writer to allow his plays to degenerate into crude declarations of loyalty to god and king.
His plays are about the arguments of the time, so skilfully portrayed that, if properly directed, they reflect the arguments of Shakespeare’s time and of our time too. As the nobles’ factions form after the death of Henry V, it suddenly becomes clear that in the civil wars that follow, every king, every queen, every prince, every priest, every duke and every titled ninny is concerned exclusively with their own power and their own wealth, and will fight for both by any murderous means available to them. The bloodbath that follows turns the country into an abattoir. The scenes in this production open with all 12 actors sharpening knives for the slaughter. Each murder is accompanied by a butcher with a platter of red, freshly carved meat in front of him. And the whole reckless orgy of killing is hailed throughout by incantations of hypocrisy in honour of god, of England’s green and pleasant land, and of peace in our time.
The futility of the civil wars between lords who raise armies in different parts of England and France is grimly illustrated by a famous battle scene watched over by the anguished, vacillating king. A father kills a son, and then a son kills his father. The son records how this frightful tragedy was all the fault of the warring lords:
‘From London by the King was I pressed forth;
My father, being the Earl of Warwick’s man
Came on the part of York, pressed by his master.’
In the middle of these ghastly battles (St Albans (twice), Northampton, Wakefield, Towton Moor, Hedgeley Moor, Hexham, Shrewsbury, Tewkesbury) comes suddenly another one, which meant something to the people who promoted it. In 1450 the enraged and starving agricultural labourers of Kent rose up in revolt under the leadership of Jack Cade. Like the rebellion of the starving mob in Rome in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Cade’s army gets handsome treatment in the play. And Edward Hall’s production makes the rebellion seem and sound like an angry anti-capitalist demonstration in contemporary Britain. As Cade’s comrade Dick the Butcher demands, ‘The first thing that we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ The ferocious crowd moves among the audience demanding the bodies of lawyers. I confess I was greatly relieved that I and my companion (the editor of this magazine) could claim we were not lawyers.
Shakespeare’s excuse for so much sympathetic emphasis on the revolutionary mob is that the Cade rebellion was part of a plot by the Duke of York to overthrow the king. But again, the playwright’s eye and ear can’t really permit such an unlikely story. When a nobleman accuses Cade of being a dupe of the Duke of York, Cade mutters, aside to the audience: ‘He lies, for I invented it myself.’
These plays were written on the eve of the English Revolution, a real mass uprising of the lower classes of which Queen Elizabeth and her supporters were far more frightened than of yet another internecine war between titled members of her class. Shakespeare knew that his job was to warn of anarchy to come, yet he could not help seeing and understanding the desperate craving of the masses.
The original ‘Henry VI’ plays are difficult to follow. New characters keep coming on stage, and are difficult to distinguish or identify. Edward Hall’s tremendously exciting production cuts out the crap, and leaves the essence clear and pure without once disturbing Shakespeare’s narrative or his poetry. There are outstanding performances by Robert Hands as the French-born Queen Margaret and Tony Bell as Jack Cade–and many others. Though the audience was ecstatic, there were far too many empty seats.
Remaining true to Egypt’s revolution
A photo book that captures a fashion revolution
Shadow of #MeToo hangs over new BBC thriller
A great choreographer who challenged bigotry