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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE HISTORIES
at the Roundhouse

KINGS' GAMBIT
By JOHN NATHAN

  David Warner as Falstaff

What a shame that one of the greatest theatrical events of recent times has one of the shortest runs in London.

While mediocre shows in the West End limp on (let's see how long Gone with the Wind lasts) the Royal Shakespeare Company's superb eight-play history cycle, which transfers from Stratford-upon-Avon's Courtyard theatre, only runs for a couple of months.

It is best to see this half-marathon (the second half, which is comprised of the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III , is yet to come) in chronological order.

The reward is a deeply satisfying continuity that allows for a rare bond to develop between cast and audience, and for performances and themes in the cycle to mature.

There is, for instance, Clive Wood's Bolingbroke who progresses from thuggish rebel to paranoid monarch. Or the two performances by Jonathan Slinger who plays the title role in Richard II , and three plays later returns as salt-of-the-earth soldier Captain Fluellen in Henry V.

Just as importantly, the mesmerising rhythm of watching these four plays consecutively (starting with Richard II one evening, and ending with Henry V the next) allows RSC artistic director Michael Boyd and designer Tom Piper to develop a coherence to their ideas. This is a - in-the-round- production that is constantly spilling into and out of the audience. And Boyd is always looking for ways to surprise. His themes are suspense - in both senses of the word - and ghosts, who stalk the living.

The duel between Bolingbroke and John Mackay's is a heart-stopping joust, with both men facing each other on saddles suspended from the Roundhouse's ceiling. In Henry V, the dandified French aristocracy laze arrogantly in suspended trapezes before Geoffrey Streatfield's boyish Hal lays waste to their knights at Agincourt.

The spirit of the murdered Duke of Gloucester (Chuk Iwuji ) walks among Bolingbroke and Mowbray as they argue in front of Jonathan Slinger's camp-as-Christmas King Richard. And two plays later Slinger's murdered Richard returns as a silent guilty presence haunting his usurper, King Henry IV.

Slinger's Richard II (he will also play Richard III) is unforgettable. His white-faced, lipsticked King is a Caligula-like dissolute. And in a cathartic gesture after the deposition scene, he wipes his face, shedding with the make up all the vanity and denial that got him into trouble in the first place.

But if there is a star performance here, it is, undoubtedly David Warner's quite wonderful Falstaff. Warner delivers just enough malice to justify Hal's cruel rejection just enough vulnerability to break your heart.

Before the two-month run is finished, it will be possible to see all eight plays. Catch them, in chronological order, while you can.

 


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