By Sport for Jove at Leura Everglades
There is nothing actors will not do when they believe in what they are doing. Sport for Jove’s Summer Shakespeare season is always shaped by its venue. Staging any performance outdoors affects every aspect, from the sound quality of voices on summer air to the attitude of the audience. In this case, however, it affected the physical care strategies that need to be put in place for the actors. As I arrived, tubs of ice were being carried backstage for the actors to use when they went off, a throne was being moved to where it would not be too much in the sun (slipping in a wee Hamlet joke there), and I heard that at a previous performance the actors had abandoned their costumes altogether and performed in their underwear. No one should be expected to do physical work in the heat that the actors experienced over January to perform this massive cycle of Shakespeare’s histories, but these not only stuck with the job, they brought all their voices, their energy and their conviction. Sport for Jove’s audiences always respond to this level of conviction with gratitude for how much these actors care about telling their story.
Photo credit Seiya Taguchi
Shakespeare wrote eight history place that can be arranged in a sequence (plus a couple of outliers). Of these only Richard III and Henry V are performed as individual plays with any regularity in Australia. If we see the others at all it will be as part of an amalgamated, compressed ‘cycle’. This is a fascinating process for a dramaturg because of the multitude of decisions that must be made to shape around 24 hours’ worth of material into a maximum of 6 hours of stage time. Deciding what to excise is just the most basic consideration, you have to craft a story arc each time. The most common way is to break the plays into the first and second tetralogies, and perform them as two full-length plays. Confusingly, because the four plays that deal with the later events were written first, the Richard II – 1&2 Henry IV – Henry V group is called the second tetralogy and the 3 parts of Henry VI with the addition of Richard III, although they conclude the story, are referred to as the first tetralogy.
There is no substance behind the fear that such a massive and unwieldy story will be difficult to follow. Told with directness by actors with good voices, backed up by some strategic visual indicators, it is quite clear who is about to try to kill whom at any given time. My eleven year old was so on top of the material he corrected me when I at one point in the conversation muddled up York and Lancaster. In the interests of narrative clarity it was an interesting, and I do think clever, choice to re-name some lords as York and Lancaster when they are really a whole range of things like Gloucester and Suffolk. I can see the rationale; the idea was to help the audience understand the entire story as a struggle between two houses. Everyone gets a red rose or a white.
One excellent strategy for shaping this version of the edited story was to show characters getting older by having several child actors being swapped in for adults as the play progressed. I haven’t seen a cycle make such complex use of changing actors mid-production, and it was a very effective way to convince the audience of the scope of the full tale. Christopher Stalley did an excellent job of making Henry VI simultaneously sympathetic and infuriating. Abe Mitchell was such a charismatic Richard III that I was disappointed when he aged into Terry Karabelas. James Lugton commanded his usual range of comic to tragic modes and it was a particular pleasure to see an actor of such vocal accomplishment play the Duke of York’s famous death scene and show how many different notes can be hit within a speech that runs the risk of being bombastic, and the cameo from Director Damien Ryan was much appreciated.
It is inevitable that some things are lost in a compression of this kind. Certain scenes work in their more complete form because of a pattern of statement and response, or main action and interjection, or the slow build of a long soliloquy that can’t fit into a dramaturgy based around quick action and clear explication. Joan of Arc, for example, still got to give most of her extraordinary speech begging for help from more than mortal powers, but set in prison in order to lead directly into the scene of her execution diffused the transcendent urgency it has when spoken while she is still on the battlefield fighting for her country.
Unfortunately, I only got to see Wars of the Roses, which meant I missed the gratifyingly gender-bending Hollow Crown. Taking the lead in freely casting across gender puts this company at the head of a worldwide trend, and keeps everything on stage fresh and vigorous. I could only make it to one of the two parts, and couldn’t resist the portion that would include Queen Margaret, a beloved personal favourite of mine who appears in the second half of this giant epic (the only character to appear in four plays of Shakespeare). Lizzie Schebesta carried the development of Margaret through her many sweeps in and out of audience sympathy with her usual aplomb. Wendy Strehlow was one of my Queen Margarets so I was delighted to see her have another crack at the role, with the support of a full production. Her approach to the older Margaret, present once her enemies the Yorks take power, is to show just how much sense her wild and bitter ranting makes given what she has been through. The stage crackled with power in the final portions of Richard III when several of the women at once had the chance to play off each other, Strehlow along with Bernadette Ryan and Bron Lim. Oddly, given how centred on male stories they are, the women in productions of Shakespeare’s histories are always luminous, and this applied to all the actresses in this version. They glow against the backdrop of muddy war and politicking.
There is so much marvellous stuff in the histories that we don’t get to see very often. They are so brilliantly gothic. Joan proving her battlefield cred against the Dauphin and then against the British hero, Talbot. Queen Margaret clasping the head of her dead lover. York raving out of the knowledge that he will find no escape. Henry VI facing his murderer – brutal payback after brutal payback. This production was messy and vivid and sweaty enough to do it them justice.