Gielgud, Shaftesbury Avenue, Royal Shakespeare Company season. One of five plays in the series transferred from the Swan, Stratford, Summer Season 2002. Directed by Anthony Clark. Performance text prepared by Roger Warren, based on the first quarto.
There are no historical notes about this play in the program, which cost £3.00 and covers all five plays in the London season, providing a detailed plot, a cast list, credits, and lengthy self-congratulatory biographies of the co-producers, Bill Kenwright and Thelma Holt. To judge from the sparsely filled dress circle and empty balcony of the Gielgud (though the stalls seemed pretty full), the risks they applaud themselves for taking on are real. Other plays in the series may fare better, particularly the two starring Antony Scher (The Roman Actor and The Malcontent).
The keynote of this play, by Shakespeare and, it seems, others — if it has a keynote — is “honor put repeatedly to the test.” I know very little about this play, never having read it, though it is to be found in the second edition of the Riverside Shakespeare, an edition I have used in teaching for the last several years. My guess is that it’s fairly early, reminiscent as it is of the Henry VI plays: lots of battle scenes, lots of end-stopped lines, lots of contretemps. But some of the lines have an authentic Shakespearean ring, and some of the scenes an authentic Shakespearean ethos — most notably, the scene in which the young and beautiful Countess of Salisbury, lusted after by the love-starved King Edward, seems to give in to him but then sets the double condition that he kill his queen and that she kill her husband. The great moment of truth occurs when she zips open her over-dress to reveal double daggers (bodkins, I think they would need to be called, so diminutive they are), one of which she hands to the king, and the other she aims at her own heart; for, she explains, her husband the Earl of Salisbury is lodged in her heart and has been there ever since she plighted her fidelity to him when they married. The king, who is a very passionate fellow but not stupid, gets the point, confesses his shame, and swears he will pursue the idea no further.
The play is chock-full of instances of honor put to the test, though not so extensive as this first one. We have the English ranged against the French, and of course the French are perfidious and of course, though far more numerous, doomed to defeat. A little dull and a little predictable in outcome. The program indicates a time length of three hours including the twenty-minute interval; but we were heading out of the theatre after two hours forty-five minutes — which suggests that some fifteen minutes may have been cut, a salient fact.
The staging is very good, however, and sparse as befits a play with lots of characters mounted on a small-stage theatre like the Swan. This is a sort of modern dress production with some key retro touches, notably the full armor, helmet and sword in which the Prince of Wales, Edward (the Black Prince — and, by golly, the armor and helmet are black) is robed in a formal ceremony. The English dress uniforms are red jackets terminating at the waist (vaguely reminiscent of the Eisenhower jacket of unhappy memory) and straight blue trousers, both with gold trim. There is a generous use of stage blood; even King Edward has a notable, six-inch-long gash in his bald head; though we didn’t see how he sustained such a wound, we marvel at how little it seems to have interfered with his monarchical duties.
Not deathless drama, in other words. The production is a rousing one, nonetheless, very well rehearsed and perfectly adapted to a thrust stage with steps leading down from it into the sides of the stalls, a device that helps to clear the stage of action sequences in super-quick time. I was held, I will say; but I was not enthralled, and I look for greater interest in the four plays yet to come.