“The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses” (BBC Two, 2016)

Note: I wrote a first draft of this last summer with the idea of shopping it to an American outlet before the new Hollow Crown series aired there in December 2016, but whenever I tried to revise it for publication, I kept getting madder and adding more wordcount, and, well, here it is.   

BBC Two’s The Hollow Crown (2012), a starry adaption of Shakespeare’s history plays Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Part Two, and Henry V, was successful enough to easily justify a second series, adapting the next four history plays: the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. But the announcement and production were a long time coming, and the second series, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses only aired in 2016. I suspect the problem was hesitation over the source material, specifically the three parts of Henry VI.

The Henry VI plays, according to common wisdom, are just not very good. Shakespeare’s earliest work, and not even all by him, a tangled mess that needs trimming and rewriting for audiences to understand. In the 20th century, major British theatres usually cut the trilogy down to two plays, most famously as The Wars of the Roses at the RSC in 1963, extensively rewritten by John Barton. The cuts usually fall heavily on Henry VI Part One, which was written as a standalone prequel, after the other two: while Part Two and Part Three focus on the civil war between York and Lancaster in England, Part One tracks the rise and fall of Joan of Arc and the English wars in France. In most of the 20th-century British productions, the abbreviated pair of Henry VI plays were followed by a Richard III – a more popular history play that is considered good enough to stand by itself. This is the tack The Hollow Crown: Wars of the Roses took, cutting most of Part One and rewriting the other two parts heavily, much more than any of the other plays in The Hollow Crown series. Read more...

All the theatre I saw in 2016, ranked

(nb: most of this was written on the train on New Year’s Eve, so “last night” = Dec 30th.)

In 2016 I saw 41 plays (and three staged readings, which were interesting but it feels unfair to put in with the rest because they’re not supposed to be fully realised pieces of theatre). Drunk Theatre stalwart Louisa and I tried to clear out the bottle-ends in the booze cabinet before the New Year, and carried out the immense task of force-ranking all our 2016 plays with Post-It notes. (for the record if you are also looking to clear out your drinks bottles, the “Monkey Gland”, a 1920s? cocktail involving grenadine and absinthe, was surprisingly all right.)

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“Margaret of Anjou”, By Jove Theatre

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Oh my goodness I have been missing this kind of theatre, and I didn’t even realise until I went. A small white-painted wood-floored gallery under a railway arch in south London with one toilet and the “bar” a table run by an artistic director selling crisps and plastic cups of bag-in-a-box wine, and a collaborative poem about the project hanging on the wall, and gosh when I walked in I just felt a wave of artistic comfort and joy.

“Margaret of Anjou: a new play by Shakespeare” is taken from four of Shakespeare’s plays: Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3, and Richard III. Prof. Liz Schafer and dramaturg Philippa Kelly created a ‘new’ play about the character Margaret of Anjou – who is in all four plays, and is the character with the most lines in Shakespeare – out of Shakespeare’s text. Read more...

Tabletop Shakespeare: Henry VIs and Richard III, Forced Entertainment

I first saw Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works, where they perform 36 of Shakespeare’s plays by moving household items around, on a livestream from Berlin. A lot of the Shakespeare Twitter people were watching and it was an excellent international play-watching experience thing (a bit like the Almeida’s Iliad and Odyssey – I really do love these and again cannot wait for the MA thesis on them). When Forced Ents took it to the Barbican in March, I got tickets to the Thursday night, which was the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. Each play started about on the hour and took about 50 minutes.

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In the Barbican Pit there were metal frame shelves of the props (actors?) for each play, labelled with sticky tape. You could look for the two pairs of twins for the Comedy of Errors, or the four ladies and four lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost. I was there with friends Steve and Meg, who have been going to Forced Ents stuff long enough that the performer Richard recognised them and came over to say a quick hello before the show, brush with fame! Read more...

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Drunk Theatre: “HVI: Play of Thrones” at the Union Theatre

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The Union Theatre isn’t technically above a pub, though it feels like it might as well be. It is, however, just around the corner from Baltic, a restaurant/bar that does very good cocktails, so good that before heading to the theatre, Louisa and I had four. (Between us. We’re not total animals. Yet.)

Exploring connections between the Game of Thrones series and the historical Wars of the Roses isn’t new. There’s a really excellent site History Behind Game of Thrones and an upcoming book entitled, er, Game of Thrones and History. What Phil Willmott, director and adapter of HVI: Play of Thrones, has correctly picked up on is that there is also a strong literary similarity between the Game of Thrones series and Shakespeare’s trilogy of Henry VI plays, in that they both go, “Oh, the Wars of the Roses? Sounds great, let’s add some pirates, magic, adultery, witches, over-the-top gore, bad jokes, zombies and/or robots and basically just go totally bonkers with it.” Read more...

The Witch of Endor in ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ at the British Museum

Wow the second half of November went on rocket boosters! I have little to no memory of the past two weeks and not for the good reasons (although yes, some wine was involved too). So um  AT SOME POINT LAST MONTH I had a few hours free from work, and went to take a breather at the British Museum, one of the secular temples of London. Having already ‘done’ the Greatest Hits when I first moved here – the Parthenon room, the Rosetta Stone, the Lakhish reliefs, the mummies – now I feel more freedom to go straight to the smaller rooms and see how many treasures aren’t shown so dramatically, that the museum can afford to throw away in patchily lit plexiglass cases.

There’s an exhibition called ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ on until 11 January, looking at European artists’ representations of witches from 1450-1900. I’m always up for some historical witchcraft, especially when it covers Shakespeare’s time, although starting at 1450 does miss my favourite medieval witch-related incident, in 1441, when the Duchess of Gloucester allegedly hired magicians to try to become queen (Shakespeare showed this in Henry VI, Part Two). It’s true that medieval European anxiety around witches is very focused on their bodies – often distorted, ugly and unnatural, sometimes titillating and sexy – so I was looking forward to the art as I walked up around the reading room, past Iran, Japan and Mesopotamia, to the little Print and Drawings room.

The first text box says this, which immediately seemed wrong: Read more...