The word "event" is over-used and too easily applied, but it is the only suitable way to describe this staging of Shakespeare's history plays in chronological order at Stratford (it moves to London early next month). The cycle comprised Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and 2, Henry V and all three instalments of Henry VI, before concluding with Shakespeare's second-longest play, Richard III.
All of the plays have been reviewed individually, but considered as part of a wider scheme, each became somehow greater by its contribution to the whole. Viewed consecutively in this way, they both transported the audiences into the time and settings described by Shakespeare and helped to reinforce the themes that Michael Boyd, the RSC's artistic director (and the director of seven of eight plays in the cycle), was obviously intent on bringing to the fore.
These themes – of father/son relationships, ambition, the inevitability of fate and the growth of evil and its eventual defeat – were communicated, reinforced and driven home by one of the most skilled ensemble companies seen on a British stage for many years. The key leads provided particular highlights. Clive Wood stood out for his portrayals of Bolingbroke and Henry IV, and Jonathan Slinger's excellent turns as Richard II and III were topped off by a show-stealing Fluellen in Henry V, in which Geoffrey Streatfeild was commanding as the young king.
The flexibility of the company was arresting. Katy Stephens was a driven and magnetic Joan in Henry VI, before spiralling into madness and hatred as Queen Margaret. Patrice Naiambana played a shogun-like Warwick, while David Warner's self-loathing but appealing Falstaff was a strikingly precise exercise in characterisation.
The build-up of imagery in the shows was spectacularly delivered via aerial work, subtle but pointed music, and the accomplished delivery of the poise and poetry of the language. These productions made perfect sense of Shakespeare's ideas and underlined the power of the Bard's stories to enrapture. Thank you to all at the RSC for delivering an English Bayreuth.
The Histories transfers to the Roundhouse, London NW1 from 1 Apr to 25 May (08444 828 008)
Ted Heath, business analyst, Solihull
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