Dave Snowden

“Conscience is but a word that cowards use”

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To Stratford this evening and the Swan Theatre (my favourite of all the RSC's venues) for a performance of Richard III.  While of a higher literary standard, the play has as much connection to historical reality as the Sun newspaper does to the facts.  Its pure Tudor propaganda designed to justify a highly dubious claim to the throne by Henry VII.  My grandfather married the wife of Henry V is about the sum of it although I admit the somewhat tenuous thread to John of Gaunt.  Not that Richard's was much better but this is course the end of the War of the Roses.   The Dukes Theatre in Lancaster put on a wonderful play back in the 70s in which John Of Gaunt is taunted by his fool in Purgatory with the various consequences of his descendants taking possession of the throne, it included a wonderful portrayal of the War of the Roses as a sort of highly stylised morris dance.   If anyone can recollect the name and author I would appreciate it!

The RSC's programme notes make a good job of summarising the facts.  Richard was loyal to Edward IV, he didn't murder Henry VI, he did not poison the Lady Anne with whom he had a happy marriage, he declared English as the language of the Law instead of French, passed the first legislation on the liberty of the Press, ensured representation of the North in Government and generally showed all the right signs of brining the agony of succession wars to an end.  Unfortunately he was defeated by French mercenaries and the betrayal of Stanley at Bosworth field and we end up with the Tudors.  Ok he was probably at least compliant in the death of the princes in the Tower, but on precedent they would have had him executed if they had come to the throne and the removal of rivals had become a matter of simple habit over the previous three decades of conflict.

I often think the creation of the Tudors was the Welsh revenge on the English for the defeat of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd and Owain Glyndŵr.  Aside from an almost obsessive use of torture in Statescraft, they brutally supressed any dissent (think of the Pilgrimage of Grace), created the Little Englander mentality which so bedevils modern politics and bequeathed centuries of religious war on the British Isles.  Unwilling to properly fund a navy they licensed pirates, taking a large percentage of the spoils and generally behaved like a bunch of brigands.

But on the plus side they presided over one of the two great periods on British Literature (the other being the Edwardian period).  The fact that they did it in part to rewrite history is just a part of the rich pageantry of life.  That said, I think Shakespeare, or the Earl of Oxford (this is one the plays which gives more credence to that theory) had some sympathy or admiration for his villain .  The part of Richard can be played with some sympathy if the black comedy is emphasised  and this was the case in a bravura performance by Jonjo O'Neill (see opening picture).  Paola Dionisotti as Margaret and Pippa Nixon as the Lady Anne also stood out, indeed the former almost stole the show.  It was played in modern costume and it remains one of the great attacks on the dangers of power and tyranny; if you can suspend the need for some form of historical accuracy.

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