"The Wars of the Roses" trilogy begins in far north Queensland
The history of the Wars of the Roses is being played out on a north Queensland stage throughout 2020. The first production takes place in the midst of Townsville’s tropical summer - thick, wet air, lazy thunder, cloying heat. Inside the welcome air-conditioning of the theatre, the thrust stage is pared back: a wooden floor, a wooden throne on an elevated platform, over which is suspended a large carved crucifix.
TheatreiNQ’s The Blood of Kings is the first in a three-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s history plays, collectively titled The Wars of the Roses. This first production compresses Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and a snippet from Henry V. It will be followed later in the year by The White Rose and the Red (1-12 July) and Blood Will Have Blood (15-27 September), which will together encompass Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1-3 and Richard III. Each production will take place in a distinct location (Civic Theatre, the Queens Hotel, and the Queens Gardens).
In condensing the two tetralogies in this way, TheatreiNQ connects with what Huw Griffiths calls ‘a particular mid-twentieth century European tradition of staging these plays as a cycle’ (92). This is a tradition not new to Australia: in 2009 the Sydney Theatre Company staged an eight-hour adaptation of the plays called The War of the Roses (read more in this review), in 2005 Bell Shakespeare staged The Wars of the Roses and in 2018-2019 Sport for Jove staged Rose Riot, featuring Henry VI (parts 1-3) and Richard III.
Director Terri Brabon’s editorial approach is bold and confident, showing a deft skill in condensing complex material into a three-hour production that is cohesive and clear. The Blood of Kings deliberately connects Shakespeare’s histories with an interest in the plays’ historical sources. And Brabon is not afraid of playing with the texts in order to shed light on underrepresented historical female figures.
Every scene in The Blood of Kings features a female speaking role. Brabon writes in her Director’s Notes:
I have made it my mission to include historic female characters who were denied a voice in Shakespeare’s resource material. It has not been easy but I have included at least one speaking female in every scene – no small feat in a Shakespeare history play, let me tell you! (Program notes)
To accomplish this, Brabon creates new roles, including Anne Mortimer and Joan Beaufort, drawing from historical sources. Historically, Beaufort was the daughter of John of Gaunt and half-sister to Henry Bolingbroke. In The Blood of Kings, Joan Beaufort (Shannon Jensen) takes over roles including Warwick’s (a member of the king’s party) in moments such as King Henry IV’s illness in act four of Henry IV Part 2:
Be patient princes, you do know these fits
Are with his highness very ordinary.
Stand from him, give him air, he'll straight be well.
Brabon’s aim here is explicitly not about being loyal to the plays themselves; she has a bigger goal in mind in recognising and voicing marginalised female voices like Anne Mortimer, Joan Beaufort, and even Queen Isabella (the production gives us an insight into Henry IV’s initial plans to remarry Isabella to his son, Hal, and highlights her strength in refusing to be a pawn again). Brabon uses Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V not so much to comment on Shakespeare’s women per se but rather to challenge the absences and silences of the real women who lived and shaped these histories.
While circling relentlessly around the ‘hollow crown’ (Richard II 3.2.160), Brabon’s production reveals a second interest: family. The play begins with children play-fighting, wooden swords in hand. The lines are drawn from Act three, scene one of Henry IV Part 1, transferred from the mouths of adults to children:
I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
Why, so can I, or so can any man,
But will they come when you do call for them?
In place of Glendower and Hotspur, young Hal and young Richard Earl of Cambridge (future traitor in Henry V) spar. Young Anne Mortimer joins the mock-battle, taking on the lines of Lady Percy:
Wouldst thou have thy head broken?
Then be still.
Brabon seamlessly inserts the young cast into the first half of The Blood of Kings. Young Hal (Riley Johnston) is invited by King Richard to sit beside him on the throne in a foreshadowing of Prince Hal’s eventual accession. Richard is played with great dexterity by James Raggatt, who captures the complexity and nuance of his character. Later, Richard, his Queen Isabella (cast to almost match her historical age and played by the feisty young Hollie Sams) and young Hal play innocently with a toy bear. After returning from Ireland, Richard’s anxiety over Bolingbroke’s return from banishment is measured to allay the fears of his young audience; Hal and young Cambridge, who have travelled with him. Consistently throughout the production we are reminded of the intergenerational trauma inflicted by the machinations for the crown.
This is embodied most spectacularly in the confronting conflict between the newly-crowned King Henry IV and the child-queen Isabella. Isabella challenges the King, played with exceptional strength by veteran TheatreiNQ actor Brendan O’Connor, who moves smoothly from ameliorating and patronising to threatening and physically overpowering Isabella. Henry angrily rips off the child’s crown and adornments from her neck, fingers and wrists; a discomforting moment to watch given the disparity in age, strength and size.
The second half begins by transitioning the young actors into their adult selves, a brilliantly choreographed piece. With the seraphim in the centre (see below for more on these personas) and the children radiating outwards from them, a kind of clock shape is created, the different hands turning and marking the passage of time from their childhood to adulthood. This choreography works pragmatically in terms of ensuring clarity of casting for the audience, and thematically in gesturing towards the fact that as these cousins grow, their familial closeness comes into tension with their proximity to the crown.
The production also concludes with the four children: the adult cast playing Anne Mortimer, Edmund Mortimer, Cambridge and Hal are joined onstage by their young counterparts, bringing into focus the tragedy of the events we have witnessed and spotlighting the loss of innocence. The production concludes with Anne Mortimer (Victoria Fowler) alone onstage, pregnant and sobbing, after Henry V has denounced her husband and his long-time friend as a traitor allied with the French. While domestic and foreign politics drive the trajectory of the narrative, Brabon’s Blood of Kings centres squarely on its personal and familial stories.
This interest is importantly mirrored both onstage and off: while the representations of the cousins (Hal, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Anne and Edmund Mortimer) runs through the production as a core thread, the TheatreiNQ company is itself structured as a family unit and supportive ensemble. The company is designed to foster the growth and talent of young performers, who are supported by opportunities to work alongside skilled veteran performers. TheatreiNQ comprises company professionals, company actors and a company apprentice, as well as students taking part in the two-year training program, the Bridge Project. These company members are joined by guest professionals, guest actors and a junior cast. Graduates of TheatreiNQ’s Bridge Project (who often go on to successful careers and further study at acting schools in QLD, NSW and WA) frequently return to guest star in their productions, as evidenced by the casting of real-life brothers James Raggatt and Joseph Raggatt as Richard II and Prince Hal respectively.
They are not the only group of family members cast in this production, which uniquely leverages its community and acting families in a way that enables the production to powerfully communicate the familial dynamics that interweave throughout The Wars of the Roses. Several family members share the stage in The Blood of Kings, and it seems to me that this prioritisation of loyalty, camaraderie and the strength of a unified ensemble offstage is in part reflected in the productions’ interest in the importance of family dynamics onstage.
The addition of the eerie, preternatural ‘Seraphim’ (Elyse Phelan, Megan Heferen, Gemma Shield) is also key to this production. Reminiscent of the three fates, these three figures, clad in cloaks of shimmering grey, haunt the throne, the crown, and its wearer. With precisely choreographed movements a seeming homage to the horror film genre (think demonic possession), the actors’ bodies are only visible when the audience glimpses a bloody hand or dirty foot. Their presence at moments when a king passes, or when death is nigh, is a reminder that there are bigger games at play; it positions the stories of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V as temporary players in a much longer game. However, in doing so, the production did not sacrifice its interrogation of individual characters as previous productions of the history cycles have been thought to do. Griffiths writes of previous history cycle adaptations that
In extending the productions into longer cycles that included some, or all, of the plays from the two tetralogies, directors were able to draw out the political processes over long periods rather than develop their productions around individual charismatic performances, as had become the norm with the staging of single plays. (95)
The introduction of the Seraphim in Brabon’s adaptation provides timely reminders of the scope of the overarching political plot, balanced with a prioritisation of the individual characterisation of The Blood of Kings’ three kings: Richard, Henry and Hal.
The production returns to the clock symbol during the battle between Henry IV and the faction led by Harry Hotspur Percy (Ron Pulman); the Seraphim are in the centre as the raging battle is represented by the soldiers racing in a circle around the hooded figures. The role of the wars in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are somewhat minimised here; the focus is not on the bloody battles as much as on their repercussions for the individuals and families represented.
The second half of the production offers a notable change in tone as it focuses on scenes in Mistress Quickly’s tavern (a captivating performance by Arminelle Fleming). Falstaff (John Goodson) is, as he should be, larger than life, riotous, and at Hal’s rejection, a little heartbreaking. The chemistry between Hal and Falstaff, Falstaff and Quickly, is a welcome contrast to the coldness of court. The production omits Falstaff’s recruitment processes and minimises his presence in battle.
TheatreiNQ’s The Wars of the Roses is a production that ruminates over the complexities and power of our histories – in several ways. It brings into dialogue the plays’ version of events and the omissions, using Shakespeare’s Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V to tell a broader story about the interpersonal and politicised construction of our histories. In doing so, it gives a voice to marginalised female historical figures. Implicitly, the production highlights the history of TheatreiNQ itself. The Wars of the Roses trilogy is a celebration of the company’s 10-year anniversary, and it uses the history plays as a vehicle to historicise the company. In completing the history cycle with Richard III, TheatreiNQ returns to its first ‘Shakespeare under the Stars’ production in 2010. Further, in its multigenerational casting, the production reaches to the experience of the past and builds towards the company’s future by enriching its ensemble with a junior cast, guest actors (who are themselves past ensemble members), and its established company members. In this way, The Blood of Kings explores the foundational role of familial dynamics for the unravelling of the historical events that constitute the Wars of the Roses, and it highlights the critical importance of those same dynamics for the generational growth of the company’s own ensemble.
TheatreiNQ's The Blood of Kings played at the Townsville Civic Theatre from 26 February - 7 March 2020.
Griffiths, Huw. ‘The History Cycle after Brecht: Sovereignty, Pathos and Violence in The War of the Roses (Sydney Theatre Company, 2009)’. Shakespeare, 9:1 (2013): 91-107.
Shakespeare, William. Henry IV, Part 1. Edited by Rosemary Gaby. Internet Shakespeare Editions. https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/doc/1H4_M/index.html.
Shakespeare, William. Henry IV, Part 2. Edited by Rosemary Gaby. Internet Shakespeare Editions. https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/Texts/2H4/index.html.
Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Edited by Catherine Lisak. Internet Shakespeare Editions. https://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/Texts/R2/index.html.