Pros: There are some really funny moments, and the set and lighting are very good.
Cons: It’s about as subtle as being smacked across the face with a copy of Shakespeare’s Complete Works.
You have to hand it to whoever thought it up: it’s a stroke of marketing genius to sell Shakespeare through the connection with the popular HBO series Game of Thrones. HVI: Play of Thrones is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI – a play of three parts. Packing a day’s worth of theatre into one two and a half hour show is an ambitious venture. If anyone could do it though, I was convinced it would be director and adaptation genius Phil Willmott. He is, after all, the one who gave us a brilliant version of Wagner’s The Ring Cycle this summer at More London; a grand total of four operas squeezed into a single evening. As it turns out, I was mistaken.
In very short, Play of Thrones focuses on the young king Henry, who after the death of his father is left to rule a vast kingdom riddled with rebellion. In France his soldiers are challenged by Joan of Arc, whilst at home he has to deal his nobles and their in-fighting. His French queen Margaret, and her lover Suffolk, have an axe to grind with Henry’s protector and uncle the Duke of Gloucester; and meanwhile a civil war is brewing between the rivalling houses of York and Lancaster.
An inevitable side-effect of condensing three plays into one is that the characters lose much of their complexity. Shakespeare’s characters, including the villains, are three-dimensional even on paper, yet in this Henry VI they’re flat, often reduced to a couple of characteristics. The acting, which is rather intense, doesn’t help either: there’s more bellowing, sobbing, sneering and lisping than perhaps strictly necessary. It results in characters that are cartoonish, Hollywood clichés rather than human beings.
It’s not a stretch of the imagination to see the parallels with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series in terms of plot lines and characters. Clearly Willmott has also taken more than a few cues from the TV series though, particularly in the ‘gratuitous sex and violence’ department. Take the scene in which the sons of York take revenge for the murder of their sister for example. Is it brutal? Yes. Are the brothers ‘bad guys’? Absolutely. Does that mean it’s necessary to put them on stage dressed from head to toe in black leather, have them torture Suffolk with hand tools and then giggle maniacally while one of them rapes Margaret with a hammer? I’ll let you answer that one for yourself.
There are a few sparks of light in this otherwise heavy-handed production. Some moments are genuinely funny, like the scene where the Duchess of Gloucester is conned into believing she’s communicating with spirits from beyond the grave rather than with a bunch of rowdy men doing weird voices and blowing into empty wine bottles. The lighting is very atmospheric, the set design is ingenious and pleasingly sparse, and, when they’re not emotionally rollercoastering between the high heavens and the pits of hell, most of the actors are actually very good.
Yet, between the turbulent emotions, the large amount of redundant sex and violence (yes, even York and Lancaster get to exchange saliva) and the dramatic background music that kicks in about every fifteen minutes, it’s simply too much. There’s a good reason why Game of Thrones comes in 50-minute episodes: there are only so many crimes against subtlety a person can take in one sitting. I give Willmott and company a lot of credit for their ambition in taking this project on: hopefully next time it’ll result in another The Ring Cycle instead.
Author: William Shakespeare
Adaptation: Phil Willmott
Director: Phil Willmott
Box Office: 020 7261 9876
Booking Link: 24 January 2015
Booking Until: http://www.uniontheatre.biz/play-of-thrones/4587426746