The Wars of the Roses, based on an adaptation by John Barton of Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three and Richard III, by William Shakespeare. Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Montgomery, Alabama. Spring 2007.

Reviewed by Joanne E. Gates
Jacksonville State University

Joanne E. Gates. "Review of The Wars of the Roses, based on an adaptation by John Barton of Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three and Richard III, by William Shakespeare. Alabama Shakespeare Festival. Montgomery, Alabama. Spring 2007." Early Modern Literary Studies 13.3 (January, 2008) 23.1-15 <URL:>.


    Directed by Geoffrey Sherman, Diana von Fossen, and Susan Willis. With James Beamon, Jeffrey Brick, Lise Bruneau, Ray Chambers, Nick Cordileone, Marcus Kyd, John-Michael Marrs, Hollis McCarthy, Will Pailen, Gardner Reed, Greg Thornton, and Mikal Webb.

  1. Alabama Shakespeare Festival featured as part of its spring 2007 repertory the three-part Wars of the Roses, based on John Barton's adaptation of Shakespeare's first tetralogy. Barton and Peter Hall, director of the original RSC performances that were later broadcast on BBC, recombined and condensed the three Henry VI plays into two, dubbed (for this Montgomery, Alabama, run Henry VI, Part A and Henry VI, Part B), followed by a slightly altered Richard III. When one saw the plays in sequence—as I did on May 5, June 3, and June 7, 2007—they convincingly demonstrated that Shakespeare's well-known Richard III works best when preceded by an effective condensation of the York-Lancaster dispute.

  2. Much credit goes to the dramaturg, Susan Willis, who also served as the director of Richard III. She admits revering the work as wholly Shakespeare's, believing that he “hit the ground running” to compose the tetralogy so early in his career. Thus, there are no worries here about authorship questions, nor whether 1 Henry VI was revised after composition of the latter two parts. Willis also commented to one of her Festival “Bard Talk” audiences on a point underscored in the director’s notes: that artistic director Geoffrey Sherman’s love for the stage was born in his viewing of the original Barton-Peter Hall staging of the cycle in 1964. (Sherman directed Henry B, with Diana Van Fossen serving as director for Henry A.)

  3. If there was a single moment that confirmed the thrill of the experience, it came in Henry VI, Part B when Ray Chambers, the actor playing Richard in adulthood, took over the role from John-Michael Marrs’ young Richard, right in the middle of the act of murdering Henry VI in the tower (the penultimate scene of the middle play). Chambers, who would become the Richard of Richard III, stepped in for Marrs, an exciting, youthful, limping, impish Richard. They had identical costumes and identical physical deformities, but Chambers was almost a head taller and had a deep, cynical voice and more jaded, glazy eyes. His cynicism electrified the final two scenes of the last Henry VI, as he and brother Clarence kissed the baby of their older brother, Edward IV. The pageant was powerful, yet implications of family backstabbing grew ominous.

  4. A task even more challenging than this was to find a convincing enough conclusion to Part A to bring us back for the middle play: this "ending" was the fabrication of its adaptors. One the page, the conclusion to the Barton-Hall Henry does not appear to have the power that director Diana Van Fossen brought to this crucial component of the trilogy. In order to find a different break point for the condensed Shakespearean plays, the RSC version cobbles together lines from disparate places in parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI - and even gives Margaret a couplet of blank verse from Gorboduc - to drive home her rift with Henry as she threatens revenge. However, not only did Van Fossen’s electrifying and macabre staging of the dead corpses of Henry's great uncles form a thrilling conclusion to Part A, but also Lise Bruneau’s portrayal of Margaret, cradling the head of Suffolk, accusing the king, and raving in her grief, heightened its dramatic tension. Nick Cordileone’s Henry conveyed just enough of his weakness and deific hope that the two could “learn to govern better” (2 Hen. VI 4.9.48) to haunt us with the ominous sense that more devastation would follow when we reengage with the drama of the next part.

  5. Seeing the full cycle, rather than Richard III alone, helps spectators better to understand the function of Edward IV and Clarence, and especially of their father, the Duke of York, whose early rise and solid presence is the strength of his rival claim. Queen Elizabeth, and most of all Margaret of Anjou - the only character appearing in all of Shakespeare’s four plays - form interesting developmental studies in the fuller saga of the complex family interactions of Richard’s rise to power. Part of the theme of these connected productions was that Richard’s diabolical behavior was neither unique nor particularly ghoulish, given what had gone before.

  6. Alongside the intrigue of character development, additional recurring themes and staging devices made the sequenced plays captivating. Records of Peter Hall’s original direction of John Barton's Wars of the Roses for the RSC demonstrate the heightened significance he placed upon the throne and the council table, with Barton even inventing some lines to make action cohere around each locale. Here, the two symbolic stage spaces were never present simultaneously, but a simplified change of scenery - with the throne and table carried on between scenes as needed - was executed so that scene-shifting was unnoticeable and resulted in a seamless flow of action. While the throne scene that concluded Henry VI B dripped with irony as Clarence and Richard kissed their newborn nephew, the use of the throne in Act 4, Scene 2 of Richard III flowed with high melodrama. Director Susan Willis achieved some excellent effects by including the obviously sickened Lady Anne attempting to hobble to her joint coronation with her husband. Not only Richard's disability and Anne's further sickness, but the burden of their royal robes and crowns weighed both down. Anne was too ill to make it all the way to the throne to sit at Richard's side; a stool was moved into place just in time for her to collapse into it. Others present for this scene huddled in a different corner of the stage so that Anne's presence triangulated the action. One at a time, Buckingham, Stanley and Tyrell moved forward to hear Richard's barked commands. Richard was riled by Buckingham's hesitation to execute his nephews, became irritated by interruptions that reported on Richmond, and presumed he was solving a dilemma of kingship--while Anne suffers, crumpled, at a slight distance--as he proclaims, "Give out / That Anne, my queen, is sick and like to die" (Rich. III 4.2.56-7). This prepared us for his second wooing scene, when he appealed to Queen Elizabeth for the hand of her daughter.

  7. Richard features two effectively counter-pointed wooing scenes; in the Henrys, we also witness Suffolk's wooing of Margaret of Anjou for his King (1 Hen. VI 5.3) and Edward's wooing of the widow of Lord Gray, Elizabeth Woodville, with younger brothers Clarence and Richard listening in, at 3. Hen. VI 3.2. In the first, Suffolk and Margaret measure each other primarily through their asides. In Edward's wooing, his younger brothers use a parallel device to mock and comically undercut their brother's lustiness. By the time Richard's brash confrontation with Lady Anne takes place, Shakespeare has perfected his stichomythic repartee and displays Richard's boasting of devilish exploits against her relatives, responding to her curses with "Your beauty was the cause" (1.2.121). Then, when Richard thinks he can get away with a parallel argument after he is king, he appeals to Elizabeth, now widow of his brother, whom he has repeatedly mocked and maligned, for the hand of her daughter. (This Princess Elizabeth is not scripted by Shakespeare, but did appear in the Barton-Hall adaptation and in this production, in an earlier, rewritten scene, in substitution for the daughter of Clarence.) By the time Richard "woos" Queen Elizabeth for her daughter, we have witnessed quite a transformation of the grieving women.

  8. In this production, Margaret returned, in all black, as a specter of herself to pity the queen and Richard's mother, the Duchess of York, and to "teach" them "how to curse" (4.4.123). She seemed to encourage Queen Elizabeth to slap the floor as if together they could stamp out the "bottled spider" (81). Hollis McCarthy as the mature Queen Elizabeth rose to her full matriarchal power to stand up to some of Richard's most gruesome flattery. She extricated herself from Richard without a commitment. Immediately afterwards, the rapid-fire reports of Richard's foes "on the seas," consolidating against him, showed Richard's rapid disintegration. The paranoid king's almost show-stopping "Is the chair empty? is the sword unswayed? / Is the King dead? the empire unpossess'd?" (4.4.470-1) was followed by the proverbial slapping of the servant who brought unwelcome news. Even with the capture of Buckingham, it was clear by the end of this masterful scene that Richard's collapse was irreversible.

  9. Shakespeare shapes the theme of fathers and sons dealing with each others' deaths in variations upon an all-male rendering of the pietà. Talbot makes a conscious reference to Daedalus mourning Icarus as he cradles his dead son (1 Hen., VI 4.7). Henry VI witnesses mirrored scenes of a son discovering that the man he killed is his father and a father discovering that the dead man he plans to rob is his own son (3 Hen. VI. 2.5). Though truncated as a single "Scene 35" in the Barton adaptation, Young Clifford's lament over his father's body (from 2 Hen. VI 5.2) immediately turns into revenge as he kills his father's killer's (York's) young son, Rutland (taken from 3 Hen. VI 1.3). This drives home the cross-generational blood letting so much more comprehensively than the later smothering of the princes in the tower. (In Willis’ production, Tyrell's soliloquy reporting their deaths was performed with Richard onstage, but in silhouette, in his throne chair.) Richmond's last speech of the last play, pronouncing that he has put an end to a situation in which "The father rashly slaughter'd his own son, / The son, compell'd, been butcher to the sire" (Rich. III 5.5.25-6), brings this image full circle.

  10. Inevitably in the early histories, the action requires the display of a severed head or two. In this production, Richard's sudden demand that Hastings' head be brought to him before dinner was turned into a ghoulish perversion of previous moments in the Henry plays when the heads of Suffolk and Clifford were dramatically displayed. Most searing in its pathos was the display of Suffolk's head near the end of Part A, for Margaret's rage at her husband for causing his demise gave these moments a horrific poignancy; she cradled Suffolk's head as if it were her infant child and filled the small stage space with her grieving fury. Later, severed heads became cruder images. We witnessed a clumsily arranged piked head as a stage prop when Warwick gave direction to replace the Duke of York's head with that of Young Clifford at 3 Hen. VI, 2.6. By the time we got to Hastings’ head in Richard III, it was a sad bundle of bloodied mess, almost upstaged by Richard and Catesby licking their fingers while eating the strawberries Richard had ordered, Catesby sneering and swinging the pillowcased head as if it were another hunk of meat.

  11. Sensational death scenes and the use of dead bodies to punctuate stage action also proliferate in Shakespeare’s play. In the Alabama Wars of the Roses,the supernatural sign of blood streaming from the wounds of the dead Henry VI during the wooing of Lady Anne in Richard III seemed rushed and underplayed, given how dramatically Henry VI Part A had concluded with the deaths first of the Duke of Gloucester (his body carried on stage with one hand thrust straight out) and then of the Bishop of Winchester. Van Fossen staged Winchester's lurching out at King Henry in his death spasm as if he, in his raving, were making a direct threat to the person of the king. Others on stage responded as if this were a coup of ominous significance and jumped to defend the weak Henry. Later, with brilliant performances by Richard's hired murderers, the napkin that wiped the dagger that had killed Clarence suddenly turned all red. Similarly, Richard’s haunting by his murders in the ‘Night before Bosworth Field’ scene (Rich. III 5.3) was rightly convincing, especially because the ghosts of Richard's victims came forward physically to recollect to Richard the manner of their deaths. Only after they spoke to Richard, each in turn, did they form a collective chorus and turn to Richmond to wish him well in a brief speech delivered in unison, one of just a few alterations this production made to the Barton text.

  12. Spectators over-familiar with Shakespeare's Richard III uncut might have missed in this production the Scrivener's soliloquy (commenting on the speed with which Hastings’ beheading has taken place) and the young Duke of York's physical taunting of his uncle, both cut in the Barton adaptation. One also has to accept this company's convention that the roles of the two young princes, Rutland and Edward V, are both played by Dana Benningfield, a graduate acting student who also tackled Barton's invented role of Princess Elizabeth and the parts of a number of citizens and soldiers.

  13. A notable contrast to this young actress’ portrayal of the royal lads was offered by the casting of the unspeaking role of young Richmond. As an adult, Richmond was strongly and solidly played by one of only two prominent African-Americans in the cast, Will Pailen. (Earlier, and in keeping with the full trilogy's strategy of double casting, we had seen him as the Duke of Exeter and as each of the Lieutenants of the Tower.) His younger, silent self was effectively played by his pint-sized look-alike, Mikal Webb, when Henry VI pronounces him as "England's hope" (3 Hen VI 4.6.68). It was Pailen, as Lieutenant, who accompanied the young lad offstage for safekeeping and Pailen who returned as the young Richmond's adult self. Perhaps the directors meant us to notice this instance of racially blind casting, as all the rest of the performers were white. Other double-casting that worked quite effectively included that of the towering Jeffrey Brick as York and then as Buckingham; of handsome Marcus Kyd as Suffolk and later as Clarence; wise Greg Thornton as first Warwick, then the more wily Catesby; and the compact James Beamon as Talbot, Jack Cade, and Hastings. Hollis McCarthy and Gardner Reed played the roles of Eleanor Duchess of Gloucester and Joan la Pucelle respectively. Although these roles might have been forgettable because so truncated in Barton’s adaptation, each actress returned to give a powerful demonstration of her range; McCarthy's Elizabeth and Reed's Lady Anne reminded us that Shakespeare made much more use of female roles as his stagecraft developed.

  14. The strengths of staged endings having come to the forefront in the lesser-known finales of Part A and Part B, the conclusion to Richard III also thrilled, but in a different way. It was almost too well-known and long predicted to be anything but a stirring relief. Richard's "My kingdom for a horse" (5.4.7) disappeared in the flourish of a huge battle confrontation. The smaller stage space’s rightness for these plays appeared questionable only when fiercely clanging long swords during the battles caused a few spectators seated in the first rows of the audience to guard their faces from potential wayward blows. Yet no choreographed battle staging went awry. Indeed, the action peaked at moments when the small stage served impressively as a battlefield in France or England.

  15. Once the final battle ended, dead Richard's stiff and outstretched arm held the crown, echoing the earlier staging of the Duke Humphrey of Gloucester’s effigy that had so disturbed young Henry VI at the end of Part A. Richmond had to wrench the crown from Richard's death grip. This new leader's determined promise to end the fathers', sons' and brothers' shedding of each others' blood justly overshadowed his reference to the white and red roses and his claim to unite the two houses of York and Lancaster by marrying Elizabeth. There was no attempt to incorporate the previously-introduced Princess Elizabeth into the final tableau; we remained on the battlefield. Richmond's firm command left no room to speculate on his own overreaching; Shakespeare gave him the warrior hero status that merited the production's spontaneous standing ovation.


Where not otherwise indicated, text quotations are from The Riverside Shakespeare, 2nd ed. Edited by G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Texts and supplementary material also consulted:


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© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).