The War of the Roses, directed by Benedict Anderson for the Sydney Theatre Company
For the entire first act of the Sydney Theatre Company’s The War of the Roses, Pt 1, a condensed version of Shakespeare’s plays on that subject, gold rains thick on the stage. It is just little rectangles of tinsel, but so much of it that the actors become wreathed in goldenness, stuck to their hair, shoulders, sometimes to their eyes and mouths, and to their hands and wrists like gloves.
Photo: Steven Siewert, Sydney Morning Herald
Cate Blanchett, seated at the front of the stage all in cream, a crown on her pale hair, her luminous face through this golden downpour, is a mesmerising King Richard II. The first act (all-but-two hours of it) is devoted almost entirely to her King’s soliloquising. It is all about Richard’s conviction of the divine right of his kingship, the fact that his whole being is saturated in his kingship, and what happens within when this is taken from him. Blanchett makes every moment of that riveting: now laughing, now crying and despairing, now defiantly mocking Bolingbroke as he takes her Richard’s crown. Sometimes the falling gold created optical illusions: at moments it seemed Blanchett’s Richard was moving upwards, the whole stage borne towards the ceiling by the force of his self-reckoning. Extraordinary.
After Richard II’s death and the second act is bereft of Blanchett, however, I can’t say I felt the same way about the rest of the production. Based largely on Henry IV and V, this act charts the descent into the horror of bloody and still bloodier war. While Richard II’s murder was represented bloodlessly, Hotspur and his father and the other sundry victims are slick with the stuff when they die. Gone is the shimmering deluge of gold: the stage is bare of everything here except a muso playing guitar and the various liquids – blood, spit, cum, honey, pitch, and Falstaff’s vile sherry – which are sprayed or poured or smeared or spilt over the course of proceedings.
I am of two minds about the pared-back contemporary dress and grunge chords which accompanied this act. Certainly, it means one thinks about these plays and their bleak violence in new ways. I can hardly even imagine it in period costume now, with a fat merry Falstaff instead of the seamy Aussie wino compellingly played by John Gaden.
But really, the seediness of the thing went too far. Dressed in his drab blue shirt and black jeans, Robert Menzies, who played Henry IV (what is it with these Australian actors with the names of Prime Ministers?) was not a compelling king. Unlike Blanchett, he acted all in one tortured register, and overdid it at that, which palled after another two hours. And for God’s sake, his Henry wears a McDonald’s bag cut with eyeholes at one juncture, stumbling about to a backing of grimed-up guitar, in a moment not only ugly but silly.
The stripped-back quality of this act would have worked if it gave a sense of concentrating its human intensity, as it did in Blanchett’s portrayal of Richard II. But in the end, it seemed to amplify its self-consciousness – to put it bluntly, to try too hard.
The War of the Roses, Parts I and II play at the Wharf Theatre, Walsh Bay, Sydney, 5 Jan - 14 Feb 2009