The War of the Roses, Pt I: A Review

15 Jan

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 

5 Responses to “The War of the Roses, Pt I: A Review”

  1. mary 16 January 2009 at 11:13 pm #

    Blanchett’s Richard II, Pamela Rabe’s Richard III, whoever (sorry) played Queen Margaret, and John Gaden’s every role, almost saved this; but didn’t, quite. The deluge of black tissue paper falling like Vesuvian ash through the whole of the last Act left the audience in a slough of despond, evidenced by the lacklustre applause. Compare this with the standing ovation given to “Lipsynch”, the other Festival marathon piece. The director might want to be Barrie Kosky when he grows up, but he should know that when it comes to the exchange of bodily fluids, less (a great deal less) is more (and this from someone who thought Kosky’s The Women of Troy the best thing she saw last year). I don’t know why the wardrobe person let her name stay on the credits – have you ever seen anything so pointless? Every gory death was catalogued, at the expense of much better scenes and speeches. Shakespeare survived of course, but he would survive anything. Go and see the plays.

  2. Melissa Bellanta 17 January 2009 at 3:21 am #

    Well, though I was only a little inclined to see Pt II of The War of the Roses before, your comments have convinced me to do something else with that further four hours. A pity, b/c I did want to see Pamela Rabe as Richard III… But uou are right: better to wait for someone else’s interpretation of the plays.

  3. samantha 17 January 2009 at 1:58 pm #

    I have seen both Pt 1 and Pt 2 and would definitely urge you to see Pt 2. Each act is different and the final act with the children is wonderfully chilling. Richard III is superbly played by Pamela Rabe and the children add another dimension to this gruesome history.

  4. Melissa Bellanta 22 January 2009 at 12:58 am #

    Thanks for the tip, Samantha. Gruesome history is right: am I up for it? Still to decide. – Melissa

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