Looking longingly at the role of Richard III, Matt de Rogatis approached Austin Pendleton recently about a production of William Shakespeare’s Richard III. Forever busy theater man Pendleton thought about it and decided the thing to do was to combine it with William Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part III so’s to give background on why the winter of Richard III’s discontent is made glorious summer by this sun of York.
The result is War of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III in which the former play is an extended prologue to the latter play, which is much less trimmed in the transition. So here’s a three-hour production with intermission that, as it passes, feels like nothing less than three hours and perhaps several minutes more.
As the blended plays begin, the 15 actors involved—de Rogatis getting his wish as the misshapen Richard and Pendleton as weary Henry VI—walk onto the stage in street clothes with occasional hints of period outfits. (Maya Luz is the seemingly underworked costumer.) Each ensemble member finds a seat in the two upstage rows. (Yes, this is another presentation where the actors often perch on stage when not involved in scenes.)
Occasionally, some furnishings arrive, but the only permanent set features (no set designer credited) are two floor-to-low-ceiling-length vertical banners covered with red streaks meant to remind the audience of the blood copiously spilled as the Lancasters (red rose emblem) and the York (white rose emblem) battle it out for the throne.
While the cast members emote, the war(s) supposedly waged seem too often to be with the lines rather than with the English combatants. Sometimes they’re spoken with little flair, sometimes shouted as if that’s the way to be effective, sometimes acted histrionically to beat whatever band might be marching nearby, sometimes merely dropped into place.
From time to time, however, an actor—perhaps coaxed by directors Pendleton and Peter Bloch, or perhaps emerging from individual instincts—lifts the general tedium.
Pendleton, curiously more soft-spoken than even the malleable Henry VI might have been, is expertly moving when the sad monarch sits on a promontory and imagines the life of a “homely swain.” (In Camelot Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe treated this sort of reverie as “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”)
Congratulations to Rachel Marcus for the subtle changes of expression from hate to potential affection that she evinces as Lady Anne when being wooed and won by the cruelly manipulative Richard. Among other accomplishments, she manages to suggest the pain underlying her succumbing to his wiles.
Pete McElligott is doomed Clarence—knifed and then dumped in a barrel of malmsey—who foresees his death in a dream. McElligott’s rendition of the speech about the nightmare, really, has Clarence somehow enchanted by it. No actor may have previously interpreted the poetry in this manner. Does his reading seem right? It doesn’t matter. He’s mesmerizing throughout it.
Joanna Leicester as the Duchess of York is relentlessly steely in the sequence when Richard, now King and having rid himself of Anne, decides he need heirs courtesy of the Duchess’ daughter Elizabeth. Opposite her striking inflexibility, de Rogatis lifts his crooked-left-arm-hump-backed performance from sufficient to much more than that. Elsewhere he’s too frequently yelling, too frequently speaking so quickly it’s difficult to know what he’s saying.
Though it’s not so much the effect of this production as the timing of its arrival, some spectators may find themselves thinking how much Richard’s behavior resembles a current high-ranking office holder. The king has achieved the crown but is still unsure of his tenure and therefor continues on a rampage against everyone he perceives as blocking his path. Is any contemporary personage carrying on likewise?
Yes, when they say Shakespeare’s plays are universal, that they remain timeless, here’s another disturbing example.
Incidentally, at the end of Richard III, the king suddenly acquires a conscience. I can’t say I believe this inexplicable turn. Was a guilty conscience behind Richard’s loss in the Bosworth battle, or was he merely not up to it physically?
For those interested, the Pendleton-de Rogatis War of the Roses isn’t the first time the plays have been linked. It may have occurred initially in 1963 when a combination was thrust on London’s Old Vic stage as adapted by John Barton and directed by him and Peter Hall.
A last comment: Unless I nodded off during a crucial moment, at no time did de Rogatis speak the speech that so famously begins Richard III—the one alluded to above about a winter of discontent and a summer of sun. Is reciting the magnificent outpouring of rage now considered a cliché and thus to be avoided? Pendleton and de Rogatis may think so. I don’t.
War of the Roses: Henry VI & Richard III opened August 4, 2018, at the Bank Street Theatre and runs to August 19. Tickets and information: proveavillain.com