The RSC’s The Wars of the Roses solves a peculiar literary problem. Shakespeare’s earliest history plays are entitled Henry VI parts (I), (II) and (III), which is thought to put people off. If you see one why not see all? If you miss the opener will the sequels confuse you? The solution is to condense the material and to reconfigure it as a single theatrical event. The result is a revelation. Here we have Shakespeare at his freest and most exuberant cramming the stage with every blockbusting trick he can contrive. Sex, battles, conspiracies, sword fights, gorings, cuckoldings, lynchings, beheadings. And there’s a constant stream of jibes aimed at the faithless French. The action opens with the death of Henry V. His successor, Henry VI, is a dreamy wimp who wants the warring barons to embrace love, peace and understanding. Fat chance. While they prepare to manipulate their hopeless new master, the scene changes to France where we meet the arrogant but likeable Dauphin and the visionary Joan of Arc. She couldn’t be further from the preachy exhibitionist created by Bernard Shaw. Imogen Daines plays her as a spiky sex bomb with a milkmaid’s purring accent. At her first encounter with the Dauphin she responds to his schoolboy pranks by pulling a sword on him and nearly cutting his head off. They launch into battle together and after walloping the English they celebrate with an all-night sex marathon.
Henry meanwhile needs a wife to provide him with an heir. Enter Joely Richardson as the penniless but beautiful Margaret, a refugee princess, who allows herself to be seduced by the handsome baddie Suffolk. To increase his influence at court Suffolk palms Margaret off on the weedy king and within weeks she’s expecting a child. Is it Suffolk’s? Probably. When their romance ends in tragedy, Margaret overcomes her grief and sets about building herself a position of unassailable power at court. Joely Richardson is brilliant as the demurely erotic Margaret. Alex Waldmann’s Henry is a charming fop who learns with painful slowness to acquire some moral fibre and to assume his political responsibilities. Andrew Woodall plays the doomed Lord Protector with a wonderful tincture of melancholy and humour. But the real star here is the script.
A Wolf in Snakeskin Shoes is an update of Molière’s Tartuffe. Writer Marcus Gardley is no friend of concision. His central character is a corrupt southern preacher named The Righteous Reverend Prelate Prophetic Apostle Tardimus Tito Jermaine Toof (Toof, for short). We first meet Toof in a secluded room as he tries to seduce a blonde worshipper. ‘I cannot get to the deeper sin unless these hands touch bare skin.’ Does he expect her to undress? ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘that’s why they call me a man of the cloth.’ There’s a knock at the door. The half-naked girl hides under a table. In walks Toof’s wife on the warpath: ‘I smell blonde!’ Gardley’s dialogue is delivered in a pulsing, rhythmic language which he decorates with puns and rhymes. But the corny sex-farce plot seems way out of date.
The blonde seduction scene is abandoned and Toof moves on to a new target, a critically ill millionaire whose son, Gumper, refuses to work for the family business because he’s gay. And, being gay, he wants to be an air-stewardess. Toof tries to cure Gumper with a weird religious ceremony which he declares a success. And Gumper agrees. He’s no longer gay. But does he mean it? In a sketch show this material would barely pass muster but it works on stage, just about, because the cast are excellent and the script crackles with inventive frivolity. Director Indhu Rubasingham handles the farcical scenes with great assurance and yet the show is a puzzling disappointment. Why take us on this strange tour of antique prejudice in the Bible belt? Visiting the sticks just to jeer at redneck parochialism strikes me as snobbery masquerading as sophistication.
Playground is a comic murder-mystery set in a canal-side café in east London. A spate of child killings is being investigated by two young coppers who are so weird they could be suspects themselves. The investigation focuses on a group of psychiatric patients who meet to discuss the works of Enid Blyton. Could Danny, the loopy cleaner, be the murderer? Or Stuart, the charming tramp whose posh girlfriend Tamsin has devoted her life to bedding proles? There are offbeat laughs aplenty in this bizarre satirical cop show. And the killer’s identity is revealed to gasps of shock and relief.