It may look illogical to some people that The Sheehab, an Irish actor's British-based fanclub, would leave the herculean task to review a Shakespeare trilogy at the Rose Theatre in London to their Italian Correspondent - but we've always been a notoriously dysfunctional fanclub, so newbies please don't be surprised.
Head Sheester Erinn gave me my first hint that this was going to happen when, a couple of days after Richard III first preview on September 25th, which she attended with sheester Sarah and sheester Jenny, I asked her if she was done writing her review yet and her response was:
Well, you know... I have the kids, and I just tripped over my dog twice this morning...". (True story!! E x)
"You're gonna leave all the Shakespearean complicated crap to me, aren't ya?"
"No no, don't worry, I'll get to it...". (HA! It's taken we a week just to post this & I didn't even have to write it!! E x)
She still had not found the time when I had my second, final clue that, in general, the British don't know that much more about Shakespeare than I do, as soon as I sat in the theatre to watch my first play, Henry VI, the matinee on Wednesday October 8th, and looked at the regal coffin dominating the centre of the empty stage.
"Whose coffin are we looking at?", asked me the old, elegant British gentleman sitting next to me.
"Ehm... I believe that's Henry V's, Sir.".
"Huh. It makes sense, you're probably right... Have you seen the other two plays already?"
"Not yet, but I'm about to. Twice."
"Well, yes. Since I flew here just for this, and here is a thousand miles away from home..."
"Where are you from?!" - he asked, examining my slutty clothes.
"Wow! You must be a big Shakespeare fan then!"
"No Sir, I'm just a groupie, this is what groupies do.".
"The guy with the curls on the poster?"
"Yeah, that one.".
I already knew watching the trilogy twice was going to be the best possible choice for me when I read Sir Trevor Nunn saying that "Every single time you perform a play, it's just one more chance to get it right.". That reminded me of when I saw Rob playing the lead role in Playboy of the Western World four years ago at the Old Vic. Because it was just one short play (short compared to The Wars of The Roses!), I watched that play three times, which gave me a chance to notice all the little things that can go right or wrong during a live performance: a prop falling in the wrong place, Rob quickly adjusting a rope around his waist that wasn't fitting right, or just how different the ditty he sang while polishing his girl's boots sounded in each show, especially in the matinee when he was trying to save his voice for the evening performance. It was hard to spot anything like that in The Wars of The Roses, all I could notice was Robert laughing differently through one of his monologues from one night to the other and a tent getting stuck to the stage balcony (but that was just for a second, then Superman masked as Owen Oakeshott in a Sir Richard Ratcliff costume flew in and saved the world...).
I do envy Rob's fans who can bear to watch this only once or even just miss it entirely. Clearly they've never followed their favorite band on tour or they'll know that having your celebrity crush performing live in the same continent, in the same country, in the same town, in the same venue for several nights in a row is a luxury, a time&money-saving treat I would never have the guts to deny myself. From my distorted point of view, this was actually "smart economy" on my part!
"I think Shakespeare invented most things in the entertainment business, I think he was writing film scripts hundreds of years ahead the invention of film. And very obviously, he invented the long running series, as in this chronicle.”, said Sir Trevor Nunn in a recent interview. ”And therefore he invented the box set. The real excitement these days is to get your box set and dedicate a whole day when you can watch it beginning to end.” he says, and I totally agree. Sadly, this is not really a box set that I can store on my DVD shelf to re-watch it later and that's another reason why I would have regretted watching it only once.
Because basically until the last minute I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to take days off where I work during our busiest month of the year, I had long before booked pit cushions (they're very cheap) for the most likely days, and only booked real seats later on. My initial plan was to watch Henry VI and Edward IV on the 8th with pit cushions, then again pit cushion the next day for Richard III and then trilogy day on Saturday with real seats. But then, at the last minute, I didn't want to spend six hours on the floor and I knew Rob is not often on stage in Henry VI so I changed that first pit cushion for a real seat in the pit area, which means first rows yes, but not as "first row" as seating on the floor at the foot of the stage. Jesus Christ, I hadn't been oh-so-very-much-first-row since when I used to fix my make-up on my favorite musician's mirrored guitar! I'm really, really happy I did not change those other pit cushions and watched Edward IV and Richard III literally knelt at Robert's feet!
Now, I know there are some sheesters around the world who, if only they had it, would not hesitate to invest an embarrassingly large amount of money and then starve for months to go see Rob in The Wars Of The Roses, and I know they expect me to let them see it through my eyes like I did with Anita B and The Road Within premiere in Rome. I will try to sum it up for you, so you can understand which kind of roles Rob played and in which context he played them but mind you, this time it won't be so easy. This is a monumental nine-hours trilogy that squeezes four Shakespeare's history plays (Henry VI part I, II and III, plus Richard III) into three plays. They start off with the death of King Henry V in 1422 and end with the death of King Richard III (aka Robbie, here and after known as "Our Richard", or most likely "Our Misshapen Dick", if Erinn gets to edit this review)(He'll always be our Misshapen Dick from now on! E x) in 1485. That's over 60 years of dynastic wars for the throne of England and it's rather complicated because all the different characters are related and pass on the same names (Henry, Edward, Richard...) and the same titles (Duke of York, Duke of Gloucester, King of England...) from one generation to the next. Robbie's Richard, for instance, is just "Richard" the son of Richard Plantagenet Duke of York at first, then he's dubbed Richard of Gloucester, then crowned King Richard III. Here's a brilliant example, this is old Queen Margaret talking to Our Richard's mother, Duchess of York:
I had an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
I had a Henry, till a Richard kill'd him:
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard kill'd him;
Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard killed him;"
I was in fact very surprised when our news-agent sheester Judy first brought to my attention the controversy on Trevor Nunn's "white-washing" choice to have an entire cast of white people to portray a bunch of British and French medieval nobles: "WHAT?! Not even a black Dauphin of France or an Asian King Henry of England?!" - I replied - "Oh well then Judy, if it's not confusing enough, I'm not going!". Now, I'm no expert, I'm just a fangirl but, keeping in consideration how complicated the plot is and that almost all the actors play from two to four or more roles through the tour-de-force of this trilogy, at the risk of sounding racist, allow me to express my modest, unprofessional opinion as briefly as I can and then I'll just move on: oh fucking please, give him a break!
That said and before I go into the Sheehan-core of this, let me highlight a few things that impressed me about The Wars Of The Roses. Really just a few because this has already taken four days out of my life and I still have a lot of stuff to cover.
As sheester Sarah and I both agreed that we would have loved to live in the Middle Ages just to dress like that, let me start with the costumes. Oh the costumes! Just as I expected, from the rags of the poor to the Cardinal gown, I loved every single one of them! Not only the sight of my favorite actor in black velvet clothes, sexy boots and metallic accessories was a joy for my eyes compared to his usual headache-inducing multi-coloured patterns but, being a Goth, I of course already own Duke of Exeter's exact same outfit, I couldn't stop drooling over Lady Grey's long red dress and I absolutely have to get myself a chainmail mini-skirt, which would look smashing with my boots!
What I did not expect, fervent atheist that I am, who truly despises King Henry VI when she reads it on paper and just wants to punch him in the face as much as Queen Margaret does, was that Alex Waldmann made him so natural, believable and funny that, much to my surprise, I ended up liking that helpless, spineless bigot!
Speaking of Queen Margaret, I think I'm in love: Joely Richardson literally grows old through the plays. She starts off as a beautiful young princess, becomes a vengeful warrior queen who forces Richard of York (Misshapen Dick's dad) to wipe away his tears with a rag drenched in the blood of his youngest son Rutland (one of my favorite scenes!), and she ends the trilogy as a disgraced bitter and resentful old hag... her transformation is really creepy!
As much as I had never pictured Richard III looking or sounding anything like Robert, his father Richard of York was one of those lucky cases in which the actor, Alexander Hanson if I remember correctly, nicely matched my mind picture, especially when he gets really mad. And even though all actors spit a lot while they recite on stage, I think my Greatest Spitter Award goes to him: I thought I had to wash my hair during my stay but after three plays in the pit, by Friday night he had just splashed away my problem. He's actually really charming though, he came over to talk to us sheesters Saturday night and we asked him what we were all wondering: how can they remember so many lines?! He fairly pointed out that they had no choice, that in contemporary plays, if you forget a line, you can make up a new, similar one on the spot, whereas you cannot do that with Shakespeare poetry! He confirmed it's insane to have to remember all that stuff, that you just repeat the lines in your head over and over and you end up having nightmares about it.
"Are you actually dreaming in iambic pentameters?", I asked.
"Yes, yes I am!"
"Wow, I don't think that's healthy!"
"No, it is not!".
Oh and Michael Xavier is a fucking volcano. If it wasn't because of Our Richard, I think his flirty Suffolk in the first play might actually be my favorite guy in the whole trilogy! Plus he's got quite an interesting, powerful voice and you know me, I have a weakness for some male voices... That's why, of all the actors who passed me by, I thought it was appropriate to choose him as my mail man when I needed a gift to be delivered backstage to Rob.
Least but not last, I was honestly afraid to get bored with too much sword fighting but they were all one-to-one fast, engaging, splendidly choreographed fights and the group-fights ended up being some of my favorite bits! The slow motion effect to render the chaos of the battle was visually stunning, you feel like you've witnessed the entire battle in the span of three seconds! And if that isn't enough, you sit on the floor or on the corridors of pits and stalls and you will actually be in the battlefield, because they use the off-stage space an awful lot, actors are running around you all the time. Someone, in fact, commented that at some point she could have reached a hand out and grab on something but let's just leave it at that... (That MAY have been me..... ;) E x)
Our Misshapen Dick
In the first play, Henry VI, Rob is one of the French guys who follows King Charles of France and Joan of Arc, who were both sensational in each exhausting lead roles they played. Although Rob was on stage more than I thought in Henry VI, at least as long as France is involved, his Alençon is cute, funny, lanky, always with a drink in his hand... As painful for a fan as it may be, I think you can survive and forgive yourself for missing out on this character: just take a wild leap of the imagination and think of a medieval Rob dressed in chainmail and talking in verse and you pretty much got it... I myself had initially promised sheester Judy that I was going to be reasonable and watch Henry VI only once but then one thing led to another, sheester Erinn, Sarah and Jenny joined me for trilogy day that Saturday so in the end I watched that twice too because, well... it's just too cool to see actors play multiple roles in the same project, that really shows off their eclecticism. Some of them played so many roles I lost count and I could barely recognize them from one scene to the next: for instance, the only time I was sure I was looking at Rufus Hound is when I saw him outside on his motorbike!
What pains me to think you won't ever see and hear, and I wish I could tear out my eyes and ears to share it with you, is all that happens in the last two plays, girls. I don't even know where to start!
To put it in Rob's words:
"The thing about our Richard is there's a broader arc, in the sense that when you first meet him he's a little youngster who's quite in awe of his dad - he's just one of the middle brothers - you get clues as to where he's going but not that many."
You first meet Richard when he's rolling on the stage floor playing “catch the crown” with his brothers (Edward, George and the little Rutland), fighting over a paper toy-crown. A chilling preview of what's to come... But he's still a nice, loyal guy and of all his brothers, he soon shows to be the one who cares more about his father's right to be King of England and, in spite of his deformed body, proves himself an excellent warrior fighting at his side.
“From Richard’s point of view” - said Rob (not to me, in an interview!) - “you see a huge transformation from how he begins – not as Darth Vader – but as a young man who is in awe of his dad and goes to the embodiment of evil. It’s an incredibly huge span dramatically, timewise and everything else. That’s why it is rewarding. That’s why it is like a box set. The challenge has not been the Darth Vader stuff – Trevor’s going to kill me for saying Darth Vader – it has not been the gleeful, evil mischievous stuff. It has been more when Richard was younger and warmer and part of the family. That is actually trickier.”
When his father Richard of York is slain by Queen Margaret & Co. he, more so than his brothers George and Edward, explodes in fury: "Richard, I bear thy name; I'll venge thy death!" And here ends the part that Rob said he found more challenging to play and begins what I call the pornographic part for me. I never made it a mystery that I love the sickest villains, I've always had. I was the little girl ruling for Snowhite's evil Queen and Cruella and I grew up into that fan who first approached Rob by begging him to play Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust, Dionysus in Euripides' Bacchae and Satan in Milton's Paradise Lost. Of all the roles Rob played so far, Richard III is no doubt the most evil one of all. When sheester Judy first announced me, back in June, that "It's Shakespeare time!", my immediate thought was "He's medieval, evil and he's live... the chances that I will not fall in love with his Richard are practically zero."
Right before heading to the theatre to see my first round of Richard III on Friday night, I remember reading a tweet by a woman who, just like me, had seen him playing Richard in Edward IV the night before and, just like me, was flipping out: "Oh my! Oh my! Robert Sheehan in The Wars Of The Roses playing Richard III was brilliant last night!! Cannot wait for the 3rd part at Rose Theatre! I am now in love with an evil, corrupt, sadistic and manipulative murderer! Is this wrong?!” I hear ya sister, I thought, and yes, it is probably wrong but this is not entirely our fault.
“Shakespeare's fundamental questions...” - I had read Sir Nunn explaining about these Shakespeare's plays - “...are why do we ignore the men of peace, we think of them as weak, or compliant, or to be mocked, as it happened in every century, and why are we intoxicated by the men of violence?” and to that I say: “Well I'm sorry but evil is sexy, and if you don't want me to lust over an evil, corrupt, sadistic and manipulative murderer, you may want to cast somebody else for the part!”.
Once his father is dead, all the resentment of a deformed boy transforms him into a young man whose only obsession is to become King of England. So many are the obstacles between him and that throne (Henry VI, his and Margaret's son, Richard's own brothers and all their heirs...), that seems nearly impossible he'll ever get to sit on it.
Likely for me, Richard does not have very high moral standards... Enemies, allies, relatives, friends, women and children, long in advance he plans carefully to eliminate all those obstacles, by either killing them personally or having them killed by others, but always in that cunning, mocking way that he very much enjoys and that will make him look innocent in the eyes of those still alive. He's not even ashamed to enjoy those little pleasures; with sadistic irony, he seems to arrange his horrendous murders so that they pleasantly fit in with his daily breaks: he wants to see Hasting's chopped-off head before lunch time, same as I do with The Walking Dead and he wants to hear all the details of his baby nephews' murder after dinner, like I do with Hannibal!
He's hilarious, machiavellian, ingenious and with his black humor he, more or less secretly, disrespects everything and everyone, even God. It was just delightful for me to watch him, a medieval man (I mean, there weren't many Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins back then...), dismiss the mandatory gesture to cross himself when going out of the church as he realized there was absolutely no point in doing that when there was no one else around to see it. There's also a whole scene where, rosary-beads cross around his neck and the Holy Bible in his hands, he pretends to be the pious, god-fearing Richard who declines the throne when the throne is offered to him, because he is too busy with all the prayers... Imagine a scene like the last episode of Misfits season 1, when Nathan pretends to be one of the good guys, set it in the Middle Ages and you'll get the idea.
Scene after scene, he gets worse and worse. In one in particular, he's all in a good mood and kind and friendly, asks for strawberries and exits just to re-enter soon after, barking at the other Lords like a mad man with a menacing twisted face!
Murder after murder, he slowly manages to clean his way to the throne and, speaking of ruling for the good guys, both times I heard that fanfare and finally saw him walking the boards in full King Richard III costume I went: "AAW, my love! Bravo!! I'm so proud of you! You managed to kill them all and now I can see you sit on that throne in your regal fury coat!" - and I squealed to everyone around me - "Aaw look! Look how pretty my Venus in Furs is with that crown on his head!!".
“Really? Even with the hump and the limp...?” asked me the funny old woman sat next to me on my second round...
Of the many things that might have worried me about his performance as Richard, the physical and mental energy to run up and down the stage all contorted for six hours, dragging a deformed calipered leg, a huge hump on his back and one useless arm in a sling while marvellously fighting with his one good arm and reciting poetry all at the same time, well... was not one of them. After what he did in The Road Within, I don't think anything like that will ever worry me again. But I remember when the trilogy was announced, I shared with sheester Judy my lack of faith in his ability to look as unattractive as Richard had always been in my head without the help of any CGI. When I re-read the plays in September, this time picturing him as Richard, I thought that was going to be weird to see everybody around him despising his looks, hating his personality, spitting at him, insulting him and calling him names such as "Misshapen Dick" (a pun for Richard's nickname "Dicky" and his deformed body that delighted Head Sheester Erinn beyond believe...). (I snorted so loudly in the theatre, I'm pretty sure the cast heard me! E x)
As he's not exactly equipped to be ugly, it was also weird to hear him going on and on in his monologues about his own ugliness:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass;
I, that am rudely stamp'd, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph;
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deformed, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up,
And that so lamely and unfashionable
That dogs bark at me as I halt by them;
Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace,
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity:
And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover,
To entertain these fair well-spoken days,
I am determined to prove a villain!
Fortunately, Robbie is capable of making up for his natural lack of ugliness by contorting his face in every possible way, as you've seen him do many times before, albeit not live right in front of you for hours. I took a note of this four lines while reading the plays because I think they give you the idea how perfect he is to play Richard, in spite of the fact that he was more disturbingly gorgeous than ever:
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry 'Content' to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions.
Now let me get to what I know some of you are longing to hear, the real reason why he's my most expensive hobby and the reason why, to see The Wars Of The Roses, I would have crawled to London on my bare knees if I had to.
A sexy voice is not something easy to describe with words and frankly, his voice in a theatre is different than in any other place you've ever heard it before. In a theatre play, you're there with him in person, and you can enjoy his voice for a prolonged amount of time without actually having to interact with the overwhelming presence of your celebrity crush. It's live, it's all around you, you can feel every tiny little change in it. And in this project you really get to hear all its possible nuances, from reedy monologues to screeching whines to warrior's screams, all in a rhythmic, poetic patrician's Elizabethan accent!!! His vocal strength didn't fail once and this was basically a 12-hour orgasm. And I never doubted that this was going to be the result, in fact before even going to London, I kept on thinking of that lady in the USA who was arrested last year during Fifty shades of Grey for "questionable behaviour" in a movie theatre and I was saying to myself “I bet that's never happened with Shakespeare! At least not yet...”. Thanks to my past experience at the Old Vic, this time I was actually thinking this through, planning possible excuses for whoever may sit next to me such as: “Sorry Sir, it's just my phone vibrating...”. Anyway, I'm proud to report that, once again, I miraculously managed to stop myself from bringing any inappropriate tool with me into the theatre, I just stoically let him spew an endless amount of iambic pentameters at me, with my hands innocently displayed in full sight. (PMSL!!!!! E x)
But as you can imagine, after a whole day of Sheehan (or three days in a row in my case), by Saturday evening we were starting to show the first signs of a Sheehan-overdose. Half way through the last play, when sheester Sarah was already on her feet for her slightly-premature 45-minutes standing ovation, Erinn's legs were starting to twitch, kicking the people sat on the floor in front of her and I was panicking for the imminent stroke I knew I was about to risk, like the one I had risked exactly 24 hours earlier.
Erinn was at the box office when I first met her that Saturday morning, she didn't see me coming but she didn't even need to turn around to know that it was me violently smacking her on the head from behind, as promised. (She's got quite a smack on her - it bloody hurt lol! E x) She had seen Richard III two weeks before me, she knew she should have told me there's that much weeping-Sheehan in it that it might have quite possibly killed me! All sheesters know I cannot handle that, even he knows and he's always abused of his crying face, think in how many movies/episodes he has not cried... Not many!
But having read the plays beforehand I thought that, all in all, I was going to be safe this time... When half way through the second play a messenger announces Richard of York's death to his sons, his brothers George and Edward fall on their knees and cry desperately, while Richard says that “To weep is to make less the depth of grief / tears are for babies, blows and revenge for me!” and doesn't shed a tear. Phew, first two plays gone with no weeping! I started to fear that this was not going to end well for me at the beginning of the third play, when Our Richard, in spite of her hate for he had killed her father and her husband, talks Lady Anne into marry him just by using a lot of sweet-bullshit and tears. I have never seen any other Richard III but I didn't remember reading any suggestion of actual tears in the play and that vaguely reminded me of that time when, to be forgiven, he kissed The Sheehab's ass on Head Sheester Rachel's dad videocamera.
So Friday night I arrived at the last half of my first Richard III totally unprepared: Shakespeare tells us that when Our Richard wakes up in the middle of the night after a terrifying nightmare, he's so frightened he doesn't even speak in metrical poetry anymore but he doesn't say it anywhere that he starts sobbing like a little girl, loudly and uncontrollably, for several minutes! It was perfect because that way it seemed his pentameters are all crumbled because of the sobs but still... imagine my shock the first time I had to witness that. And I was practically sitting on the stage, so fucking close I could have collected the tears falling off his face if I had reached out my hands. I honestly thought I wasn't gonna make it through that and that's why I was terrified to have to see that again Saturday night.
By the last scene, after 18 hours of his sexy voice crying out pentameters, when he started yelling at the top of his lungs “A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse! A Horse! My Kingdom for a Horse!”, I was crying to myself “Oh my God please someone give him a fucking horse or kill him, I cannot take this anymore!”.