After being in iconic contention for 10 hours of stage time, the white roses of the house of York and the red roses of the house of Lancaster became symbols of celebration at the end of the press day of Michael Boyd's magnificent marathon production of the three parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI at Stratford. Buckets of the emblematic blooms were brought on stage during the final bows and the crack company of 20-odd actors - who will remain together for more than two years and eventually perform a cycle of eight English history dramas - lobbed the flowers into the wildly appreciative audience.
Largely recast from its hugely successful first incarnation in 2000, Boyd's freshly pondered account of the trilogy manages to surpass in interpretative richness and flamboyance of stagecraft its initial triumph. And it does so in the newly-built Courtyard Theatre. This 1,000-seat thrust-stage venue is a prototype for the projected redesign of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and it will be a temporary replacement for the main house when it closes for rebuilding next year.
Many theatrical spaces claim to "combine the intimate and the epic" but if every venue deserved that statutory note of self-congratulation, it is the Courtyard. The building is composed of rusty steel panels and Tom Piper's design for the trilogy carries that look into the plays, appropriately because the ghost-haunted production - which begins with the funeral of Henry V - vividly underlines how this whole political world has already lost its shine, tainted by the usurpations and power-brokering of the past.
With the opportunities it affords for bickering nobles to confront one another from opposing galleries, the lofty space (15m high) is ideal for a play about the factionalism that results from the indecisive rule of Chuk Iwuji's charismatically sensitive and otherworldly Henry. It also means that, while the production has its feet on the ground in terms of nous, a great deal of it takes place in mid-air. The vertiginous instability of a political world where everyone is fighting on two fronts (with the French, and with one another) is superbly evoked. This is not to be missed.
In rep to 17 February 2007 (0870 609 1110; www.rsc.org.uk)Reuse content