THEATRE / Vicious rules of Henry's history game

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The Independent Culture
SHAKESPEARE'S Henry VI plays re-entered the repertory with the 1963 'Wars of the Roses' cycle - still the greatest achievement of the RSC. The pretexts then were power struggles in post-colonial Africa; the pretexts for Katie Mitchell's Henry VI: The Battle for the Throne are the civil wars of Rwanda and former Yugoslavia.

But if there is a precedent for Mitchell's engrossing show, it is not any main-house event, but rather a 1970 touring production of King John, the most cynical of all Shakespeare's histories, by the RSC's first woman director, Buzz Goodbody. For all their realpolitik insights, 'The Wars of the Roses', and Adrian Noble's later 'Plantagenets' cycle, still offered a spectacle of martial grandeur with tragic aspirations. It was left to Goodbody, in her political strip-cartoon, and now Mitchell in this touring production, to see through the boys' power games. Less 'Pow]', you might say, and more 'Splat]'.

Mitchell achieves this partly by taking Henry VI, Part III out of context and presenting it as a free-standing work. At a blow, this eliminates any sense of the grand march of history, and leaves you with the squalid, warmongering finale. Staging (design by Rae Smith) reduces the contest to its basic components and the kingdom to a plaything: an upstage door, a window for siege debates, a downstage throne. It is as diagrammatic as a board-game, with every fresh atrocity coming as casually as the throw of a dice.

Shakespeare lays down the ground rules for the game, with such routines as the taunting of victims before slaughter, the instant switch between oaths of love and hatred when allies change sides, and the use of religious sanctions to dignify personal ambition. To these, Mitchell adds rituals of her own: underscoring political turning- points with choruses in solemn organum, and darkening the stage to accompanying animal cries for the battle scenes.

Stylisti cally, the most striking aspect of the show is its conversational tone. Why choose a play designed for surging rhetorical delivery, only to suppress the rhetoric? There is no denying the loss of rhythmic vitality (especially from Chris Garner's stammering Exeter). But this is outweighed by the gain in dramatic impact. Astonishingly, the text yields a vein of domestic comedy between the royal couple and the York brothers. More to the point, what characters do becomes more important than what they say. The sight of Clifford (Jamie Hinde) cutting the boyish Rutland's throat is truly horrible, because it takes place during a smiling sotto voce embrace.

Delivery, in other words, is central to the unmasking process. What Mitchell shows is a gang of young males on the make, under the precarious control of two intriguing survivors, Warwick (John Keegan) and Queen Margaret (Ruth Mitchell). The piece unfolds as a brutal game, with one key player, the King - who refuses to join in. First seen as an anonymous, yelping pack, they gradually acquire personal identity.

Beginning with Jonathan Firth's Henry - who develops from a hen-pecked weed into a figure of invincible dignity - it is a thrilling process to watch: most of all once the York brothers enter the power race and history engages with individual destiny. You get the measure of Lloyd Owen's Edward as soon as he is crowned; still a locker-room lout, sprawled with one leg over the throne, propositioning his first female supplicant. After which, Tom Smith, as the young Richard, his withered arm in bondage straps, raises his skinhead and announces his future plans in a voice from the football terraces; and the verse blazes.

Wendy Wasserstein wrote The Sisters Rosensweig, she says, as a much-needed vehicle for actresses theatrically stranded on the wrong side of 40. She has proved her point. Otherwise, what would Janet Suzman, Lynda Bellingham and Maureen Lipman be doing in this dire Broadway comedy?

It concerns three scattered Brooklyn-Jewish siblings, and if any point emerges from the account of their London reunion, it is that Chekhov's three sisters did the right thing by staying home. Wasserstein's girls have busy careers. Sara (Suzman) is alleged to be a banker with a house in Holland Park. Pfeni (Bellingham) is a travel writer. Gorgeous Teitelbaum (Lipman) is an agony aunt of the airwaves. But none has found Happiness, and the closest they get is by curling up together to sing the songs of childhood.

Thanks to the luxury casting of Michael Blakemore's production, there is plenty to admire in the way of personality, comic technique and (with Brian Protheroe) piano-playing. None of which lends the piece itself any sense of purpose. Its model is the American 'crazy family' comedy of Hart and Kaufman, but emasculated by the taboos of today. It is crammed with topics of public concern, none of which have any bearing on the characters' lives. But nothing decisive can happen for fear of offending someone who has bought a ticket. So, instead, we get funny speeches of the kind that only exist on paper. And what action there is boils down to whether or not Sara and Pfeni will make it with two passing males, and whether Miss Lipman will succeed in purchasing a satisfactory pair of shoes. The show exemplifies what Norman Mailer called 'the tyranny of the totally pleasant personality'.

In The War Boys last year, Naomi Wallace wrote a tightly focused piece that demonstrated an awesome gift for staging male violence. In the Heart of America, as its title proclaims, is the big, ambitious follow-up. This time Wallace is not telling a story; she is unveiling the truth, and the focus has gone. Based on the relationship of two Gulf war buddies - one a Kentucky boy, the other a Palestinian- American - the play conflates Operation Desert Storm with Panama, Grenada and Vietnam to suggest that America's conduct in the field always adds up to a repeat of the My Lai massacre. This is clearly untrue; as Wallace seems to acknowledge by covering her tracks with evasively parallel dialogue, the substitution of rituals for narrative, and cryptic meetings between the living and the dead which betray the influence of Tony Kushner without his saving sense of the ridiculous. Dominic Dromgoole's production offers physically electrifying performances from Robert Glenister and Toshie Ogura (as an unappeased Vietnam phantom). But the prevailing impression is opaque and voyeuristic.

Lovers of Flandersand Swann will have a good night out at Wendy Toye's production of Under Their Hats,

despite the undigested chunks of biography in Alan Strachan's commentary, and semi-dramatisation of songs best left to the imagination. No quibbles over the songs, which stretch back beyond the partners' own programmes to some gems from their time with Laurier Lister (the Britten parody is a classic). Commandingly led by Moray Watson, the company includes Susie Blake as a voluptuous sloth, and Stefan Bednarczyk, whose comic attack is excelled only by his keyboard prowess.

'Henry VI', The Other Place, Stratford, 0789 295623. 'The Sisters Rosensweig', Greenwich, 081-858 7755. 'In the Heart of America', Bush, 081-743 3388. 'Under Their Hats', King's Head, 071-226 1916.