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Blanchett triumphs, but this war is unwinnable

The Sydney Festival compendium of Shakespeare’s history plays is director’s theatre at its worst, says Peter Craven

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

21 January 2009

12:00 AM

The Sydney Festival compendium of Shakespeare’s history plays is director’s theatre at its worst, says Peter Craven

No, Cate Blanchett is not doing a stage version of the old Kathleen Turner film. But this medley of Shakespeare’s history plays, from go to woe, is a severe abridgment that brings them in at an eight-hour marathon.

And although the magnet for many will be Blanchett as Richard II, the drama queen of a king who lost his crown, this is Blanchett, not just as actor, but as joint head of the Sydney Theatre Company, subduing herself to the Actors Company whose last hurrah this production is.

The cycle kicks off with Richard II and apart from a couple of apparitional walk-ons as his ghost Blanchett doesn’t appear again until Richard III where she turns in a superb performance as Lady Anne.

The Sydney War of the Roses is bookended by the Richard plays and by gender-bending casting. Pamela Rabe’s Richard III — looking like a psychopathic trailer park sister of the late Susan Sontag — complements Blanchett’s golden and glorious incarnation of the scene-stealer who had his crown seized from him.

In Benedict Andrews’s production (which he has adapted with Tom Wright), these two are given in truncated but still more or less ample versions, whereas the whole of the two parts of Henry IV, plus Henry V and the three parts of Henry VI, are compressed to the same approximately movie length. This is most drastically diminishing with the plays about Hal who, before he becomes Henry V, annoys his father by hanging out with the fat old reprobate Falstaff. Falstaff is Shakespeare’s counterpoint to the world of blood and iron, of white roses and red, and he gets short shrift in Benedict Andrews’s War of the Roses.

It is, scorchingly, and with a sometimes numbing authority, an all-but-terminal example of director’s Shakespeare. The text is frequently mown down, eliminated, its fields sown with salt so that what survives are so many ghosts of suggestion, the wraiths of what was once a fully articulated dramatic context made up of individualised voices, some earthy and idiomatic, others soaring into the ether.

The upshot is, very artfully and with a nearly diagrammatic clarity, all over the place, but with haunting displacements between the different parts of the cycle and a deliberate courting of dissonance and difference. Often the effects are spectacularly grisly and expressionist, with blood spat out like a teenager spraying the world with spit. Often they are quasi-scholastic exercises in alienation, as if torpor and going oh-so-langsam might yield the answer to the enigma of why we kill. But this is a nearly vertiginously deliberate attempt to grab Shakespeare by the throat and turn his pageant and his panoply into something that twitches and gurgles and comes all over the place, in its jeans and out of them, in the hope of finding a core of life which is compatible with the widest range of contemporary theatre practice.

Benedict Andrews takes as read that Shakespeare is not only museum but mausoleum theatre and proceeds to make love to the corpse. Hoping too — let’s be fair — that the energy of his own outrages and desecrations will generate the electricity not only to make the long-dead twitch, but to speak and weep and look like ourselves.

This is Unser Shakespeare, from the guy who cut his creative teeth in Berlin and the most notable Australian theatre progressivist since Barrie Kosky. Part of what rivets and appals the mind about The War of the Roses is the profound foreignness he finds at the heart of Shakespeare: legend, the dead centre of our tradition.

It will make most people, if they’re honest, long for Trevor Nunn and Judi Dench: the spaciousness, the effortless shifts of register, the ongoing sense of the stage as a world.

Benedict Andrews is my nightmare of what director’s theatre can come to. His El Dorado had its actors behind glass as if in a fishbowl so that they resemble figures in a Francis Bacon or Schiele painting. His The Season at Sarsaparilla, with its Big Brother cameras and its perverse casting (middle-aged women as girls, old men as middle-aged women) came across as a gigantist parody of Patrick White’s play.

It’s all here, with bells on, in The War of the Roses: the pretentiousness, the self-conscious barbarism and the scholastic self-preening, the directorial doodling, the courting of dramatic white noise and black holes, the grabbing of crotches, the simulation of fits, the sense of the music of the theatre as a ticking bomb, an abyss of torpor.

Yes, every twitch and tickle of various avant-gardisms mutating like viruses is on show here, and yet there really is something overwhelmingly vivid and passionately realised about this conception, whatever you make of its parts.

Richard II begins with a trademark Andrews effect. The stage, at maximum height, is thick with a swarm of golden confetti like so many gilded butterflies, exemplifying the short and exquisite life of this king of poses and gestures.

Cate Blanchett sits in white shirt and trousers, like a cricketer, but with an elaborate gold crown atop her blonde womanly locks. The rest of the cast stand about her, like a school assembly or a minimalist exercise at drama school. This makes some sense in the opening scenes when Richard goes through the pantomime of pretending that he will allow Bolingbroke to joust with Mowbray, but they outstay their welcome by hanging about for much of the rest of action like sentries or sacks of potatoes.

The director seems at pains to emphasise the medieval tableau aspect of the play, but the brilliancy of what becomes an alienation effect goes on too long. The audience is also likely to be confused when John Gaden, who delivers John of Gaunt’s ‘prophet new inspired’ speech with bell-like clarity, suddenly has to transform into his brother the Duke of York, a role to which he is more suited.

It’s one of the odd consequences of the Tom Wright/Benedict Andrews cut that it tends to blur the actual action, the stuff that happens, in favour of the great speeches.

The upshot is to make this intensely lyrical play, this Hamlet before the letter, even more like a set of arias for a star performer. Richard gets to keep almost all of his great lines, and this potentially unbalances the play, which needs all the counterpoint to Richard it can get.

It does have the advantage of allowing Cate Blanchett every opportunity to extract feeling from the moody self-dramatisations of Richard, and she does so with an extraordinary sweep and subtlety even where the production runs the risk of straitjacketing her. The gender jump is made effortlessly, and Blanchett finds a world of tone colour and complexity as Richard listens to his interiorities and feeds deep on the sad stories of the death of his own kingship.

It’s a magnificent Richard that deserves the world’s, not just the nation’s, attention. Better than Kevin Spacey was for Trevor Nunn or Fiona Shaw for Deborah Warner. Blanchett assumes a long pensive face in repose, a face to meet the faces that she meets, that is watchful because it is so intent on being watched. At the same time she has startling, unpredictable moments of poignancy as well as flat and scathing irony.

It is a brilliant portrait of histrionic narcissism on the skids, and much more psychologically nuanced than the production that surrounds it. Blanchett also has a devastating wryness as Richard self-consciously punctures the balloon of his own rhetoric, his very strong intelligence defeated by blindness as well as fortune.

The scenes in Pomfret Castle have Blanchett with a black stocking over her head and only a small aperture for her mouth. This is a bright idea turned crazy — OK, the shadow of Richard’s sorrow enshrouds his face — but it is distancing in a distracting way.

Still, this is a remark
able incarnation of Richard II in a production that has a spectral grandeur even when it is maddening. In a characteristic move, Andrews assumes a contrasted idiom of movement for Henry IV, which begins with Ewen Leslie’s coarsely extroverted Hal fellating John Gaden’s scrawny old bare-bellied Falstaff and spitting out the cum. He also indulges in mooning and struts and runs around the stage like the mirror of all pagan louts.

Henry IV and Henry V are done at a rate of knots with a carefree colliding inversion of expectations. Just as Gaden’s Falstaff looks like Justice Shallow, the doddering old county squire who is cut completely, so Leslie’s Hal looks more like Hotspur than the wooden recessive Luke Mullins, who not only has to tiptoe edgily through the role of the tearaway Geordie rebel, but also has to double (rather more effectively) as Katherine of France in Henry V.

Henry IV is sprawling and boisterous, its physical action a relief and an assault after the stasis of Richard, though the text is not so much the bones of the two plays as an X-ray of them.

With Henry V we race through a medley of the great battle hymns, interspersed with the choruses, each of them expertly delivered front-of-curtain. Meanwhile Henry, bare-chested but crowned, appears covered with different fluids — honey, blood, oil, whatever.

Again — as with Richard II — it’s striking how much the lack of Shakespeare’s more down-to-earth language (‘Nice customs curtsy to great kings’) makes his elevated moments sound like Klaus Kinski in Herzog’s Aguirre.

In the second half, after the dinner break, Henry VI, the killer play in more ways than one, comes across with a ravishing fleetness, even a grisly lyricism. The stage is strewn with the pretty, variegated flowers of death as at the death of Diana. The great scenes of this sprawling melodrama are highlighted in red lights about the stage. Gaden is last well-cast as York, and Marta Dusseldorp is superb as a savage and graceful Margaret in tailored beige. Eden Falk, who in the previous section had hung from the top of the stage like an inert invitation to associate death and innocent boyish allure, is a personable and affecting Henry VI, idiotic with youth and immaturity. And the relative absence of great speeches makes Andrews concentrate on the action.

And so to Richard III. Pamela Rabe is as close to being classically cast in the role of Richard as any woman could be. With her long, lank dark hair hanging over her forehead, she kickstarts ‘Now is the winter of our discontent’ with eerie sinister grace and great devilish sparkle.

Soon she is joined by Blanchett, who is a Lady Anne to die for. She gives as fine a performance in this role as the world has ever seen. And for much of the action, the setting in a children’s play park with swings and slides represents Benedict Andrews at his most ravishing.

Around halfway, however, the play seems to lose its own thread. The production cuts the crucial ‘strawberry’ scene, where Richard turns against Hastings. The moment when everyone realises that Richard is not an amoral Machiavellian, but a paranoid Hitler figure who will kill everything that breathes. The absence of this spinechilling but very naturalistic scene, with its breathtaking swoop into the psychology of politics, is unbalancing and makes the rest of Rabe’s performance a bit camp and fiddle-de-dee, like a hilarious white trash grandma whose nuttiness leads her to wield knives.

But the presence of real children as the princes (and as Clarence’s complicit daughter) is viscerally stunning.

This whip-around of Shakespeare’s history plays is full of gimmicks and groan-inducing longeurs from a director who worships at the shrine of every false god there is. It has only a passing, almost quotational, relation to the Shakespeare of the common imagination, and the English classical tradition. It assembles some of the finest actors in Australia, wasting some of them, and it is transfigured by the presence of a great actress, Cate Blanchett. With every fault in sight and in the face of sometimes blinding perverseness, it is more alive than most of what passes for theatre in this country.

The War of the Roses is at the Sydney Festival until 14 February, and at the Perth Festival from 27 February to 12 March.

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