Rose Rage

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

It’s tempting to call Rose Rage revisionist Shakespeare. Directed and coadapted by Edward Hall, son of Royal Shakespeare Company founder Peter Hall, this two-play, five-and-a-half-hour rendition of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy has the kind of testosterone-fueled messiness often mistaken for theatrical insurrection. And if any of Shakespeare’s plays are ripe for revisionism, it’s these: his portraits of power-hungry statesmen destroying a nation with their opportunistic militarism are all too pertinent.

But Rose Rage actually adheres to well-worn trends in “hip” Shakespeare productions over the past three or four decades: anachronistic, vaguely militaristic costuming; severe lighting; a rusting industrial set; an ahistorical setting peppered with various historical references; and performances that consist largely of yelling or banging on metal. Aside from the clean direction, often inspired performances, and occasional conceptual flourish, this show is indistinguishable from most other rash attempts to revitalize Shakespeare’s history plays. Worse, Hall’s effort in the adaptation’s final four hours to inflate the script’s already titanic passions drowns the production’s best ideas in spit and sweat.

Hall and coadapter Roger Warren set Shakespeare’s bloody version of England’s War of the Roses in a slaughterhouse–or more accurately a killing floor-cum-locker room, not inappropriate considering that the cast is all men. And an abattoir is apt given the plays’ scenes of butchery and the scripts’ references to slaughterhouses. Throughout the performance, white-clad butchers lurk on the stage’s periphery, knives and cleavers ready. Silent agents of death, they sharpen their blades in unison whenever a character makes a step that seals his fate. When it’s time for someone to meet his maker, they lay out animal innards and hack them to pieces while the actor feigns a particularly gruesome disemboweling. When a decapitation is called for, heads of purple cabbage get the ax.

In the first half of the first play, Hall wisely establishes a counterpoint to this explicit savagery. The court of Henry VI–the pacifist, eager-to-please monarch who ascends the throne before his first birthday–is as restrained, cautious, and deliberate as a crew manning a nuclear-missile silo. But despite their mannerly exteriors, everyone is after the crown: the unimaginative Duke of York, the unctuous Duke of Somerset, the bloodthirsty Cardinal of Winchester, the rapacious Queen Margaret, and her secret paramour, the Earl of Suffolk. Each has a well-maintained poker face and a penchant for casting suspicion on all the others. Meanwhile the Duke of Gloucester, Henry’s upstanding uncle and protector, does his noble best to keep the crown out of villainous hands. The only good guy, he’s naturally the first of the bunch to get carved up.

For 90 engrossing minutes, Hall and company turn a 400-year-old history pageant into a pressure cooker of backroom politics. To achieve a tight focus on Henry’s inner circle, Hall and Warren lop off substantial portions of the first two Henry VI plays: we never see the French army and court, Joan of Arc, or any of these plays’ numerous battle scenes. Keeping only the juicy bits may be the easy way out, but it also results in urgent theater with a contemporary feel. The major players’ voracious appetites for power ring sickeningly true thanks to thoughtful performances. Every calculated step, every shifting alliance, is clear, and the stakes are palpable–especially when everything plays out before a chorus of butchers.

Most important, the actors recognize how crucial it is to underplay their parts. The characters may be always strategizing–testing one another and planting seeds of discontent–but they must do so while maintaining facades of perfect innocence. Keep-ing most of their driving impulses under wraps, they need only Shakespeare’s expertly chosen words to scheme their way to the top. If anything is revisionist in this production, it’s the cast’s meticulous excavation of Elizabethan verse for the characters’ subtle motivations.

After whittling all of the first Henry VI play and most of the second down to a compelling 90 minutes, Hall jettisons most of what gave the production to that point the ring of truth. He opens the second half of the first part with Jack Cade, a commoner trying to whip up a kind of Maoist revolution by proclaiming himself king and eliminating all the upper classes as well as anyone with a smattering of education. In marked contrast to everything preceding them, these scenes are played to near clownish excess. Of course Shakespeare cast Cade and his followers as clowns, but given Hall’s willingness to mold the text, he could easily have humanized this mini tyrant. Instead Cade rarely thinks when he can bellow, severely reducing his powers of persuasion, and the rest of the cast seems overcome by the need to holler. When the Cliffords show up–agents sent by the Duke of York to quell the rebellion–they also yell, and as a result only the bare essentials of the scene make sense. Over the next four hours, this unfortunate tone swallows the production whole.

Suddenly Hall seems to be interpreting his text in boldface capital letters. The cast turns most phrases into sledgehammers, even when such bellicose bluntness makes the characters’ interactions unbelievable, as in one scene between the Duke of York and his three sons. The duke has strong-armed Henry into naming him heir to the throne so long as he vows fealty to Henry during the king’s lifetime; now York wants his savvy sons’ opinions on a sudden power grab. The scene could easily have been played as top-secret political scheming, but instead it quickly devolves into a shouting match despite the fact that most people considering treason wouldn’t announce their plans at the top of their lungs. And how many fathers are moved to risk their careers and their necks by sons barking out advice?

This kind of overzealous acting is probably supposed to give Shakespeare the emotional rawness of Sam Shepard, but instead it flattens the text to mush. With the exception of quiet, focused soliloquies from Henry and the future Richard III, the final four hours of Rose Rage feel like almost nonstop screaming. Rather than individualized characters maneuvering according to their private motivations, we get a wash of loud, angry people who are all loud and angry in essentially the same way.

Hall and Warren can’t seem to maintain the tight focus they carved out during the first half of the first play. They kill off most of the major players before those 90 minutes are up, and fail to shape what remains of Shakespeare’s unwieldy plays. Suddenly the action jumps from locale to locale, with fistfuls of new characters taking over before we’ve gotten much chance to know them. Interchangeable battle scenes are introduced with dispiriting regularity. (Someday a director will find a way to stage warfare without having his actors raise fake weapons aloft while running across the stage screaming, but that day is yet to come.)

As if to compensate for the increasingly cumbersome story, Hall makes each lead character’s murder more grisly than the last, with more blows inflicted or more hunks of the anatomy lopped off. But such excess doesn’t make the characters’ deaths any more meaningful, especially as the characters themselves become less distinguishable. Once a table of innards has been carted out for the tenth time, it’s not much more than a table of innards. The increasing violence comes across as pure sport, resulting in a production that loses not only its narrative coherence but its moral center.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.