Independent theatre company Sport for Jove has been punching above its weight in the presentation of Shakespeare’s plays (and other classics) to NSW audiences for ten years, so what better way to celebrate than with an epic that encompasses 100 years of the Bard’s history plays?

The company’s artistic director Damien Ryan has brought together Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V and Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 in a sweeping production that follows the generations of trauma and rivalry between competing factions in England and culminates in the bloodbath of Richard III. The epic is divided into two plays – The Hollow Crown and The Wars of the Roses – and while they can be taken separately, seeing them in a single day, almost eight hours of theatre, gives a wonderful sense of the overall cycle. Not to mention the ambition of the production and the tremendous stamina of a strong cast that juggles multiple roles across several lifetimes.

Rose Riot, Sport for JoveEmma Palmer and Drew Livingston in Sport for Jove’s Rose Riot. Photo © Seiya Taguchi

Appropriately for the Everglades Gardens’ outdoor stage with its verdant hedged wings, strewn with flowers, The Hollow Crown opens with the Gardener’s speech from the third act of Richard II, delivered by James Lugton, setting the scene for Anna Gardiner’s floral costuming, a court beset by flattering “caterpillars,” and, of course, the red and white roses of the soon to be warring York and Lancaster houses.

There’s a lot of history to get through in these two plays, but strong performances from the cast of 24 drive it along, and against a backdrop of Blue Mountains birdsong (and later in the evening when I saw it gently misting rain) the cast is for the most part easily heard. Tim Walter is a smug King Richard II – our opening king – in suede jacket and satin shirt (costumes and props are broadly contemporary), deftly selling us the rot at the heart of the kingdom that will lead to the political catastrophe to come. Walter plays the part with humour and a curious warmth, eliciting both laughter and pity as he and his kingdom unravel.

Rose Riot, Sport for JoveEloise Winstock in Sport for Jove’s Rose Riot. Photo © Seiya Taguchi

A series of gender swaps contribute to the contemporary feel of this epic, the most significant being Henry Bolingbroke (a fierce but sympathetic Emma Palmer), who takes the Richard II’s throne to become Henry IV, Henry V (Eloise Winestock) and the drunken knight Falstaff (Bron Lim) – but a number of other roles see the courts and armies populated with as many women in formal positions of power as men, Palmer, for instance, returning in The Wars of the Roses as Buckingham. While there is the (occasional) moment when Shakespeare’s observations on royalty spoken in the masculine rub oddly with what we’re seeing on stage, the changes are woven in very effectively and in many cases give the drama extra bite – the Dauphin’s mockery of Henry V, for instance, becomes gendered and adds another personal element to the war between England and France. As Hal, Eloise Winestock charts an incredible journey from clubbing pleasure-seeker to soldier-queen, hitting emotional marks with her discovery of Falstaff’s mockery and on her mother’s deathbed, while Bron Lim gives a hilarious performance as a proud, bumbling Falstaff. Damon Mann, among his many roles, is Hal’s comrade in mischief Poins.

Rose Riot, Sport for JoveBron Lim in Sport for Jove’s Rose Riot. Photo © Seiya Taguch

Christopher Stalley brings a suitably dreamy impotence to Henry VI, while Lizzie Schebesta gives us an ambitious Margaret, on the front foot from the beginning and a potent force through the scenes from Henry VI Part 1 onwards until she is replaced by Wendy Strehlow as the older Queen Margaret. Adele Querol is an earnest Joan of Arc while Drew Livingston’s adolescent rages as the hothead Hotspur get plenty of laughter from the audience. The youth ensemble – Thom Blake, Melanie Dobson, Max Ryan and Oliver Ryan – make an admirable fist of the various children.

Ryan does a fine job of smoothing out the changes in tone between the plays, the remaining shifts in texture – such as the Prologue to Henry V‘s narration of the English armies descending on France – bringing a welcome variety. While Ivo van Hove’s epic of similar scope, Kings of War, at the Adelaide Festival last year marked the more introspective, psychological shift that occurs moving into Richard III with moody lighting and an often empty stage, Ryan’s Richard III is of a piece with the rest of the set, the psychological elements serving the broader passage of history, the play the denouement of the epic rather than a biography of Richard himself (who is played by Thom Blake, then Abe Mitchell and finally Terry Karabelas).

Rose Riot, Sport for JoveChristopher Stalley and Lizzie Schebesta in Sport for Jove’s Rose Riot. Photo © Seiya Taguch

The fight scenes are given an almost balletic choreography by fight designer Tim Dashwood, and despite so many fields of battle to differentiate, inventive staging does much to pinpoint the psychological core of each conflict, with James Peter Brown’s music and sound design giving the scenes a powerful and sometimes dream-like ambience. The mist that shrouded the stage towards evening was a brilliantly evocative – if entirely unintended – touch.

Condensing so much material into a single day’s showing throws up plenty of challenges and Ryan sets a cracking pace for the most part, but there are a few longueurs. The antics of Hal and Falstaff are delightful, and serve to accentuate Hal’s transformation as Henry V, but it feels like we linger there too long given then speed with which so much of the history is raced through. The same is true of Jack Cade’s scenes in The Wars of the Roses – Cade’s rampant populism certainly strikes a chord with recent politics (a point which is further highlighted by some contemporary dialogue and plenty of yellow, hi-vis vests à la the Gilet jaunes protests in Paris) but it feels slightly out of proportion with the whole and the action feels held up beyond what is necessary to the narrative. Yet despite room for some further trimming and tightening, this is an engrossing production that effectively traces the lines of ambition and vengeance that run through Shakespeare’s history plays.

Sport for Jove’s Rose Riot is at the Everglades Gardens, Leura until January 27


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