The re-titling says it all: Shakespeare's Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3. Plays with sober, stately names; difficult plays, corpulent with political manoeuvre and double-dealing, arrive remodelled at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, as the slimmed down, dumbed down, but undeniably sexy Rose Rage. Three three-hour plays have been reduced to two of two. The fall of France has fallen and with it the first of the witch-women, Jean La Pucelle; another, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester's wife, Eleanor, is also missing, and with her, half the excuse for his execution: gone is another nation and the other sex; other points of view and hence some of the universality. All is focussed on the lead up to and the battles of the Wars of The Roses. The new name comes presented on poster and programme scrawled in blood, one sanguine R doubling for the alliteration. As that lone letter suggests, this is as sleek as a production gets. As the ruby-redness of the lettering tells us, the cutting necessary to gain such sleekness has left blood everywhere.
And so, fittingly, all takes place in the "bloody slaughterhouse" spoken of by the King in the middle of the middle play. For a full 10 minutes before action begins, all 12 of the all male Propellor Troupe stare out from stage, backed by metal cages and meat hooks, impassively sharpening the blades of knives and cleavers; all the more menacing for the masks obscuring their faces, white stained black like the muzzles of wolves. As the seconds count down, the whetting becomes louder, more rhythmic. The tattoo will be repeated throughout the piece.
As will much else. Jean La Pucelle is not much missed, because her immediate replacement, Margaret d'Anjou, soon to be Queen, looms so large. Emerging from beneath a sheepskin stole this wolf — a recurrent metaphor — first appears. Robert Hands is Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot, a woman all man, a Queen Consort more King. Margaret, like the absent Eleanor, will be her husband's downfall.
Men play wives playing their husbands, and men play men betraying their brothers. The 12 actors take on 36 roles. Jonathan McGuinness plays the ineffectual King and the valiant young Talbot; Vincent Leigh plays both the rapacious Suffolk of the House of Lancaster and the affectless George of the House of York; Tony Bell provides an enormously entertaining commoner, the rambunctious rebel Jack Cade, as well as the noble Earl of Warwick.
Each actor does a terrific job as Everyman: England is convincingly portrayed a country of turncoats, of brother killing brother, son killing father, father killing son; all killing everyone.
And if everyone is everyone else, then this is signalled by their all dressing alike, too. Characters wear the white of Lancaster, the red of York, or the non-colour black. All are booted in knee high black Doc Martens except for the King, who walks barefoot He, though a weak leader, is the strongest of men, banishing martial attire to brandish instead a rosary and Bible; the same Good Book that Suffolk uses as a pillow when seducing his wife.
But this holiest of Henrys will nonetheless meet the same fate as the meaner mortals. These ever more frequent violences are conducted on stage on offal and red cabbages, the rotting, riven food providing both nauseating stench and spectacle. Although we see nothing the assailants never touch we imagine all, and all but the strongest stomachs turn.
So, although director Edward Hall and his coadaptor Roger Warren have, in so shortening the three Henry VI plays, inevitably shed much of their political and psychological complexity; and, although as the action progresses and gains pace, the production becomes rather too relentless a bloodbath; despite all this evisceration, despite even its symptomatic, Shakespeare-shy retitling, Rose Rage is a gutsy, gutting, passionate and powerful piece of theatre well worth the ticket and time. It should never have happened. Why did I do it? I have always hated the very idea of television in the morning — it seems blasphemous to flood the room with fluorescence when God's own daylight beckons from without — and had never before got up specifically to watch a programme. Even when I was reviewing TV for the Telegraph, and had to watch the first ever edition of The Big Breakfast, I set the VCR, got my full eight hours, and sat through the frightful bilge over lunch.
Mind you, I've never had much time for football, either, but that doesn't mean that I would wilfully have sabotaged the national team by tuning in. It might be a fundamentally daft game, but worldclass excellence in any endeavour is to be applauded and admired, and a nation that evinces such excellence is the happier for it. Besides, I had no wish to give offence to my footie-feverish (though pacific) associates in the pub by confessing that I couldn't be bothered. So I foolishly dismissed my superstition, reasoning that I couldn't possibly influence the result, and that the company would make the experience fun. Never again. In retrospect I can see that it was a pretty close game, but I can't get excited about anything at that time in the morning, and I am now convinced anew that but for my unwanted attentions England would have cruised into the semis 3-1. No — in the words of that American boxer P G Wodehouse was always quoting: "I shoulda stood in bed."