ROSE RIOT - The Hollow Crown / The Wars of the Roses, Sport for Jove at the Everglades Gardens, Leura until 27 January 2019. Photography by Seiya Taguchi - above - Emma Palmer & Drew Livingston; below -Christopher Stalley & Lizzie Schebesta; below again: the 3 Richards
Binge theatre is definitely a thing: giving oneself over to the luxury of hours of extraordinary story-telling and drama. And Damien Ryan’s epic distillation of Shakespeare’s “History Plays” into two discrete works is bingeing at its best.
To make the close to eight hours (including intervals) of the two shows, Ryan dextrously cut and spliced Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V, Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3, and Richard III. The results are absolutely enthralling.
On a mild Sunday afternoon, the Everglades themselves are a thrill: tucked away in the back blocks of Leura in the Blue Mountains, the elevation of 985m is energising for a humidity-weary Sydneysider. And the structures and layouts of the gardens are not only a delight on any day, but for staging Shakespeare, they’re as if tailor-made.
Then there are the plays and the company of 20-some actors. One way or another each gets a solo – a major role in an otherwise close-knit and harmonic ensemble. A walk-on in one reign is a major monarch and/or villain in another. In The Hollow Crown – as kings wrestle for the titular headwear and courtiers wrangle for favour– it can be a bit confusing, but allowing the language and spectacle to take over fixes that.
It then becomes apparent that this is not history. It’s not about making an ancient work “relevant”. It’s simply that what happens in Shakespeare is human nature – so constant (and frequently awful) that it can’t help but echo or mirror our own times.
Jack Cade’s (Berynn Schwerdt) hi-vis Rebellion, for instance, is populism as we have come to know it: “What do we want?” “No taxes!” “When do we want them?” “Now! Yay! He’s going to make the taps run with claret. He’ll make our taps great again.” Paraphrasing, but you get the idea.
Then again, the various royals and nobles are, with few exceptions, no different than the corrupt and ghastly occupiers of modern seats of power and wealth. And even the would-be decent sorts are exposed in their No-Deal or flip-flopping inadequacy – Christopher Stalley’s Henry VI, for instance: his fragile naivety and indecision make him as dangerous as those who wield sword or poison.
Naive courage, tempered by a kind of celebrity lunacy, are powerfully present as Joan of Arc (Adele Querol) fatally believes her own publicity – with God as her personal PR flak. And a similar blind ambition is seen in Lizzie Schebesta’s steely young Queen Margaret.
A spooky resemblance to Alan Rickman-as villain means James Lugton’s mere presence and basilisk smile can conjure shivers. Adding his intelligence as an actor to the mix make his scheming Duke of York mesmerising.
Damien Ryan the director also mesmerises in dropping women into traditionally male roles. That these are simply there and not given wearying justification is refreshing. Emma Palmer is a disconcertingly witty Duke of Buckingham and it makes her allegiance to Richard of York winningly cynical. Eloise Winestock is even more unnerving as Prince Hal – a nasty piece of work, yet without a care in the world.
Wendy Strehlow shines as a grief-drenched and cursing older queen as well as an unctuously ambitious high cleric. Even more eye-popping is Bron Lim’s Falstaff, inhabiting a blubberous fat suit with uproarious conviction. There is poignancy too in the gender-swaps as they highlight the perilous tightrope life of figures of fun/women through the ages.
Drew Livingston, Chantelle Jamieson, Christopher Tomkinson, Francesca Savige, John Turnbull, Damon Manns and Brittany Shipway are all powerful presences, while Tim Walter as Richard II brings his poetry to life and signposts the tragedy and failure of that king.
As the generations progress through fratricide, regicide, matricide, civil war and political pestilence, the dramatic tempo quickens into The Wars of the Roses. The red and white roses of the rival houses of York and Lancaster are ominously displayed on breasts and he who will become Richard III enters the picture.
Richard III is another Ryan imaginative masterstroke in this context: he gives us three Richards. He is first seen as a preternaturally observant, ever-present boy (an omnipresent Thom Blake). He is misshapen and carelessly used by the adults – like a not particularly loved pet dog. It’s affecting and also makes his adult behaviour understandable. His first knifing of another human being is shocking because it’s so perfunctory and natural!
Richard as a young man is scarily personable (Abe Mitchell) and again, it makes sense of how he entices and frightens others into his orbit. Terry Karabelas is the older Richard – and the three are a constant as parts of each other, sharing utterances. Never has the path from a childhood of bullying, malice and misery through to unbridled power and revenge been so clearly delineated.
As well as dreaming up the Richards, Ryan also delivers a series of visual feasts, particularly the ritualised, choreographed set-piece battles of Shrewsbury, Agincourt and Bosworth (Tim Dashwood – fight director), and a war horse which is curiously funny and touching with humans for body and a skull head.
The design and costumes, by Anna Gardiner, are another Sport for Jove shoestring achievement. Neither contemporary nor period, but atmospherically rich with street flourishes and witty details that make the spectacle highly rewarding. Similarly, James Brown delivers a haunting sound design and music which is by turns stirring, dramatic and plaintive. And the way lighting designer Matt Cox cajoles cooperation from the gardens and sun/night is just miraculous.
All in all, Rose Riot is a major achievement and fabulous entertainment. When too much bingeing isn't enough.