“Work thou the way – and thou shalt execute”
was my favourite of the three The Wars of the Roses
plays, comprising the latter half of 2 Henry VI
and an abridged 3 Henry VI.
I might be biased towards it as the middle child of the trilogy but it encapsulates much of what is impressive about the whole enterprise. Its heart lies in two of the crucial grand narratives – the epic sweep of Margaret of Anjou’s rise and fall and the arrival on the scene of Richard of Gloucester as he begins the long con that’ll take him so far – and I actually found there to be an exciting sense of pace about the whole play, right up to its cheeky cliff-hangerish ending.
With civil war raging across the country and death and destruction and betrayal and battles round every corner, Henry VI decides to retreat into pacifism leaving Margaret to assume the mantle of leader as her vendetta against Richard of York becomes increasingly vicious as supremacy swings between the two houses. Clad in chainmail, Joely Richardson radiates a malevolent determination that is well-matched by Alexander Hanson’s fervently committed duke, their tussling over the Iron Throne (well this one is stone…) complicated by multiple machinations from supporters constantly defecting from one side to the other.
Waldmann feels more comfortable as the monkish Henry VI here, a plaintive presence to the untimely end and more effective for it, especially when witnessing the devastation of war on regular fathers and sons. The rather random early John Cade interlude offers Rufus Hound an oddly apposite moment to shine as the leader of a short-lived popular revolt, and Oliver Cotton and Laurence Spellman are both excellent as Clifford and his vengeful son, the latter entirely convincing in scorching scenes on the battlefield.
And as Hanson’s York realises he’s destined to be the kingmaker rather than king (the Tywin Lannister of the piece if you’re that way inclined), the emergence of his sons as political forces is powerfully done. Kåre Conradi’s bluff confidence suits a rather entitled future Edward IV, Michael Xavier impresses again as the wavering George of Clarence and Robert Sheehan sketches in a fascinating detail to the young Richard of Gloucester, showing how his troubled family interactions (Mum never hugs him, he always feels the butt of the jokes) and prowess with a sword and shield (effective work from fight director Malcolm Ransom) set him on course for achieving the full scope of his twisted ambition whilst somehow suggesting that it might not necessarily have turned out this way.
If you’re only going to see one of The Wars of the Roses plays, I’d make it this one.
Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 31st October
Labels: Alex Waldmann, Alexander Hanson, Alexandra Gilbreath, Andrew Woodall, Imogen Daines, Joely Richardson, Kåre Conradi, Laurence Spellman, Michael Xavier, Oliver Cotton, Robert Sheehan, Rufus Hound, Shakespeare