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RSC Henry VI Rebellion and Wars of the Roses - Review

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Latest history plays are most bloodthirsty yet
The Royal Shakespeare Company(RSC) continues its epic history cycle by rebranding Henry VI parts two and three under the more beefed up titles of Henry VI Rebellion and Wars of the Roses. Here's what to expect.

Wars of the Roses, rsc
Action packed battles in Wars of the Roses


Shakespeare's retelling of challengers to Henry VI's reign is a bloodthirsty business. Scenes akin to Game of Thrones of beheadings, child killings and armies in suits of armour are the essence of the civil wars between rival houses of Lancaster and York. It's also on a huge scale with the largest cast of any of the bard's plays.

That gives a taste of how big a scale these action-packed productions are in the latest of the ambitious RSC project to complete the Royal lignage of plays. It started with David Tennant as Richard II and already has plans to move on to dastardly Richard III in Stratford upon Avon this summer.

Director Owen Horsley has the bigger picture in mind as he concludes each of these latest productions by setting up the audience nicely for the next in the series. They fit seamlessly together with the same actors throughout. You'll be chomping at the bit for Richard III by the time he's raising his eyebrow at you in the finale of Wars of the Roses.

I caught both Henry VI Rebellion and Wars of the Roses at Stratford's Royal Shakespeare Theatre back to back but there's plenty of time to pick your days to view both in Stratford(see dates at end of this article).

The throne is nearly always on stage, and during Wars of The Roses precariously perched on rubble as we progress into civil war. You can't help but draw similarities with Game of Thrones as the violence and political manoeuvres escalate among various factions fighting for power - but with less sex and nudity.

There's an earthy, dark feel throughout the two with a relatively simple set of low platforms in Rebellion, which change into gravel pits for Wars of the Roses. But it's the technical equipment that has the most impact.

Henry VI Rebellion rsc
Videos of characters appear projected on stage


Horsley has added huge video projections on a sheer curtain. Like a movie backdrop, it shows a mix of live close-ups and pre-filmed footage of various characters when they are being talked about.

It certainly makes it easier to identify various Dukes and plotters who are off stage at the time. This added live dimension worked perfectly during Richard's killing of York's son Rutland, making it more impactful and claustrophobic.

But live footage means a cameraman is often on stage, which may annoy some. There were other times when it just seemed unnecessary and the actors' focus was more on the cameraman than the audience.

RSC Henry VI Rebellion and Wars of the roses
Minnie Gale is a force of nature as Margaret


The play all starts off with a rare joyous moment in Henry VI Rebellion as Margaret of Anjou arrives in Britain to marry King Henry. She's quickly introduced as a quirky, avant-garde woman, symbolically swapping seats with Henry to lounge on the throne during the banquet. It paves the way for things to come.

Excellent Minnie Gale gives Margaret a free-spirited, passionate and slightly crazed edge. You look forward to her moments on stage, sizzling with eccentricity, never more so than when clutching her former lover's head in her arms after his beheading. Gale really is a force of nature on stage.

Eastenders' Lucy Benjamin makes a sound debut for the RSC as ambitious Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, and the simmering catfight between Eleanor and Margaret touches on the antics of Albert Square.

Despite the melancholy of these plays, Horsley has injected humour whenever he can. It's often at the expense of volatile Margaret or inadequate Henry, a well-cast Mark Quartley. Henry flails around as pious and weak-willed, not satisfying anyone, least of all wife Margaret, who takes matters into her own hands after the King disinherits their son.

RSC Henry VI Rebellion and Wars of the roses
Mark Quartley as Henry, left, shaking hands with Oliver Alvin-Wilson's York


Margaret's wrath is up against Oliver Alvin Wilson's impressive Duke of York. Wilson plays him as a likeable 'man's man' with honour and courage on the battlefield. It makes it easy to understand why he was such a worthy contender for the throne as the opposite of Henry's awkwardness.

If you think the tempo is fast and furious before the interval, Aaron Sidwell steps things up a gear after the break as rabble-rouser and man of the people Jack Cade.

He lolls around like a medieval Liam Gallagher but with the political attitude of Donald Trump. He's a live wire of entertainment in Rebellion with Arthur Hughes as cutthroat Richard taking on that mantle in The Wars of the Roses.

Everything feels more frenzied in the second play but the level of violence gathers pace too as all honour goes out the window. The video close-ups on screen get more macabre as the death toll rises, including children.

Even Margaret is no longer the craziest person in town as Richard vies for that crown. The finale with Richard glinting wickedly really has set up a mouth-watering offering from June 23. It's an enlightened casting choice for Richard III too with Hughes an actor with an upper-limb difference disability

Richard, wars of the Roses, RSC
Arthur Hughes as Richard


It's also refreshing to see the RSC is still at the forefront of colour-blind casting, similar to that of Bridgerton. Along with a mix of regional accents and actors with disabilities on stage, it makes these really feel like plays for all people.

Full of action, political intrigue and murder, these plays go full throttle to retell England's chaotic civil wars. Across Henry VI Rebellion and Wars of the Roses this juicy RSC epic will have you on the edge of your seat for more.

RATING:


TOUR DATES

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

HENRY VI: REBELLION, 1 April-28 May 2022

WARS OF THE ROSES, 11 April to 4 June 2022


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Why? Dramatic game of thrones style history plays
When: Until June 4
Phone: 01789 331111
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Waterside, Stratford upon Avon
Cost: From £10
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