Rebellion in Stratford

Stalls row E seat 38. RST. To my left a very lovely ancient couple. To my right a retired family of (probably) academics. The refreshing feeling of bringing the average audience age down. It’s getting rarer as the tooth gets longer. But I was in a sea of grey. It was a matinee, captioned and “relaxed” so you can pop to the loo mid action and the house lights aren’t fully off. I had no choice but to go to this matinee. My schedule is tight.


Every so often the Henry VI plays come round and we remember how thorny they are. I think that the best of Shakespeare is when he cuts into the humans who make policy. The Roman plays and the histories. You can get swamped in all the lords and the words and the lies and the shifting allegiances though. “It’s a good thing they’ve got those roses on their costumes or I might get lost in it,” says one fellow in the interval queue for coffee – and yes, it definitely helps. Rebellion is the first part of a two part condensation of the three Henry VI plays. Lots and lots of nasty two faced political types with daggers out for one another as they swarm around a king who is kind but not worldly enough to hold them in check.

Nobody should want to be in power… It’s comforting to look at the instability of the divinely anointed king back in the 1400’s and consider that today’s leaders are just as much surrounded by vultures. Who is snapping at the heels of Putin that might derail his nasty dream of acquisition? In the UK, surely now at last the final part of the trap will close around Boris. These snapping scheming lords though – we see Shakespeare writing about their big political plays, and then we see them decapitated. Time can be condensed on a stage. You can show the Brexit referendum and then the next scene can be the start of Covid. Boris can have no head by the end of Act 3 with two more acts to go. Some guy watching porn in the Commons can reduce to a single joke line.

I was giggling and sniggering a great deal but every time I laughed I felt micromovements from my neighbours making me feel like one should NEVER laugh at a HISTORY play. We could see each other because of the raised house lights. I think my neighbours just felt a little bit more self conscious than I did. The plays are FULL of jokes, and they are so macabre. This production is played for truth, but it is done so with terrific wit. There is no sense that anybody is sending up their character – the truth is bursting out of the bones of it. Even Jack Cade seems at first to be absurd until you realise he is channeling a very well known figure with a great following. Then you think about the construction of identity and the nature of celebrity and how your ego can carry you further than any true ability, and you see it for another beautifully placed performance. We are surrounded by empty souls, hollow men and women, little bags of hungry skin filled up with wind and self importance. Art can prick holes in them, and art must continue to do so, and this is why the current crop of political narcissists seem to hate any art that isn’t mummified. But … today I discovered that a five hundred year old play about medieval politics can still speak truth to power just by playing itself honestly.

This is the RSC at the heights. I don’t get to go very often as I can’t usually afford the time and the travel and the tickets. I made the time for this one – today was my only window. I am very much in the habit of slogging Bergman around so the travel went without thinking. And Min sorted me with a ticket. I’m so glad I went. It isn’t on for much longer although it feels like it might come back in some form. I could easily have gone back in and watched the second three hours, but that’s going to have to wait a whole month. But I will. And hopefully with Lou.

The costumes! The sound design! The wigs! The video projections! All the excellent performances! Man… Theatre with a big fat budget! I don’t see enough of it as they have to take the skin off you to pay for it. Minnie was – as ever – connected so deeply, rooted, a wily conduit. I was laughing and crying at the same time. “Can I get a selfie with you,” a man asks her as we walk away from stage door. She obliges. “My wife is never gonna believe this,” he says, attached to a string of compliments. She is one of an ensemble of good hearts, and now, as we are all a little older, her energy and experience is part of what will inform the younger members of the company. She’s a lead, and we follow the leads. Good. If all of them were like her, the industry and the world would be kinder and more diligent and more connected, and we would eventually filter out those bad empty lords who stand centre stage for too long.

Author: albarclay

This blog is a work of creative writing. Do not mistake it for truth. All opinions are mine and not that of my numerous employers.

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