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London Theatre Reviews

Jonathan Slinger as Richard III/PH: Alastair Muir



The second half of Shakespeare's eight-play history cycle here presented for all too short a time.

Just the one complaint about the RSC's eight-play Histories cycle.

They go to all the trouble of creating an ensemble of 34 actors to play 264 roles of working for over two years on a project that rewards equally lovers of Shakespeare's language and those hungry for spectacle of reconfiguring the Roundhouse's circular stage so that it mirrors Tom Piper's design for Stratford's Courtyard Theatre, where it all began way back in 2006. And now, just as the productions and performances have reached their mature peak, they stop.

This rare staging &ndash the first time the RSC has produced all eight plays with one ensemble - has less than two months in London before Michael Boyd's ambitious plan reaches its end.

Two months is not enough. But for the happy few who get tickets, there is no better way to take in all eight history plays than in historical order.

This second half of the cycle begins with the three parts of Henry VI. They are less subtle, less moving and much less funny than the two parts of Henry IV that (with Richard II and Henry V ) preceded them.

But then Henry VI parts I, II and III are the product of a younger, crowd-pleasing Shakespeare who served up to his audience a breathless epic of international and internecine war.

Battle follows battle. First it's Keith Bartlett's one-eyed Talbot (an English dog of war with a permanently bleeding gash down one side of his face) versus Katy Stephen's stern, pitiless, obdurate and remorseless" Joan (of Arc), a description that perfectly suits Stephens's Joan, though is actually used, just as accurately, to describe her Queen Margaret.

Then it's the house of Lancaster versus that of York. But it's also Nicholas Asbury's brooding Somerset verses Clive Wood's thuggish Richard Plantagenet Geoffrey Freshwater's bitter Bishop against Richard Courdery's raging Gloucester. Only Chuck Iwuj's gentle Henry VI bears no malice. Over the 13 brutal hours of the trilogy Iwuji's nalve adolescent evolves into a world-weary philosopher born for calmer times.

In Boyd's production characters enter the fray from the flies on a suspended gantry or down a rope like marines.

The chaos climaxes in Part II with a rebellion led by John Mackay's prancing Cade, who like David Warner's Falstaff in the first half of the cycle - four plays and about 70 years earlier - attempts to add to his ragtag army by recruiting from a nervous audience.

All of this remorselessly - and grippingly - builds to Jonathan Slinger's mercurial and chilling Richard III.

The merits of breaking with the cycle's established period and staging this final play as a modern gangster style production may at first seem doubtful. But then tyranny - here passed down through the generations like a vile heirloom - is as much 21st century phenomenon as it ever was. And anyway, Slinger's crippled Richard is so entertainingly malignant it wouldn't matter if he swapped his modern black suit &ndash immaculately tailored with extra room for his hump, of course &ndash for a toga.

There were murmurings that Slinger's Richard is a tad showy. And so he is. But it is a virtuoso performance that exploits the sense of humour in this villain. I'll never forget how, while holding his baby nephew in his arms, he declares in a coochy coo voice the harm he will do to the infant.

The thirteen hours of this half of the cycle is over all too quickly. Muc