Royal Shakespeare Company’s history play cycle The Wars of the Roses to be shown for first time in 50 years

The plays were described as 'one of the most significant and compelling productions of theatre on television'

Nick Clark
Arts Correspondent
Friday 01 January 2016 20:36
Ian Holm with Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the BBC broadcast Royal Shakespeare Company
Ian Holm with Dame Peggy Ashcroft in the BBC broadcast Royal Shakespeare Company

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s great history play cycle, The Wars of the Roses, is to be shown in its original glory for the first time in 50 years.

The RSC described the cycle of Shakespeare plays Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III, broadcast on BBC1 in 1965, as being “one of the most significant and compelling productions of theatre on television”.

Its stars included Peggy Ashcroft, Ian Holm and Janet Suzman, who told The Independent the restored films were “like recapturing history from the bottom of the sea”.

Shot in Stratford, they were first shown as originally staged in three full-length productions, but were later re-edited. “Nobody had worked out how you cut up three full-length plays into 11 parts, which ended up at different lengths, and they found it difficult to sell,” John Wyver, director of screen productions for the RSC said. “That cut has been seen once at the National Film Theatre a decade ago. The three original versions have now been restored, and this is their first outing since 1965. It’s very exciting.”

They will be shown this month as part of the RSC Shakespeare on Screen season at the Barbican in London.

“These recordings are really precious records of those great actors, of those important productions of post-war Shakespeare in Britain,” Mr Wyver continued.

Peter Hall and John Barton first staged The Wars of the Roses for the newly founded Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford in 1963. It became a defining production for the company and a benchmark for the staging of the plays. “I think it’s wonderful to be able to see how the RSC presented The Wars of the Roses in the early 1960s and to recognise that the vision of Peter Hall and John Barton is still as urgent and resonant today,” Mr Wyver said.

The series proved a huge success with audiences and critics; one called it “a production to remember all of our lives”. It transferred to the Aldwych Theatre in London before returning to Stratford the following year, when the filming took place.

“It was the biggest and most ambitious outside drama recording BBC TV has done,” the RSC said at the time.

Nine films will be screened in the season, including a filmed version of Peter Hall’s acclaimed staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream from 1959, unseen in almost half a century. It was discovered in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust archive in Stratford.

While these days theatre beamed into cinemas is big business, these films are early forerunners of the trend.

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