The Dark Horse by Rosemary Anne Sisson, FRED theatre, Directed by Robert Ball at The Shakespeare Institute, May 2016
Reviewed by Sara Marie Westh
I always wondered why Shakespeare left Henry VII out of the histories. My peers jokingly claim that the playwright detested Henry for being the dullest king ever. During his brief appearances as Richmond the saviour/foil to Richard toward the end of Henry VI part 3 and Richard III he certainly makes little more impression than the average prop. Yet his life is stuffed with dramatic potential: he is an exiled prince, striving for the crown, trying to match Richard from across the “perilous narrow ocean”, and his eventual success marks the beginning of Tudor rule. Shakespeare’s villainous Richard is of course insidiously fun to watch, drawing us into his schemes and making us cheer for him especially when he is at his worst.
Keeping in mind the long shadow Shakespeare’s Richard throws over his own play, as well as the prominent position he occupies in the public consciousness, especially since the 2012 archaeological dig and the reinterment in Leicester Cathedral last year, the decision of how to handle this character in the theatre has become increasingly poignant. The Dark Horse adopts a bold approach. The play opens with a smiling actor (Peter Smith) confidently swaggering up to the audience, asking us if we know who he is. At our blank stares he walks to centre stage, and, via a series of contortions that made me flinch more than once, slips into hunchback and limp. When Richard repeats the question there is no room for doubt. A pronounced element of performance thus envelops Richard from the beginning, effectively setting him apart from the rest of the cast, and highlighting the immense web of significance Shakespeare’s “bottled spider” is wrapped in. At the same time, his appearance describes a theatrical map of physicality and manipulation made flesh, his disabilities accentuated by the people he is on stage with. When he talks to Elizabeth of York (Elizabeth Lloyd-Raynes) he shows only the slightest limp, whereas his movements during the battle of Bosworth Field takes on the exaggerated characteristics of the mainstream portrayals.
But as the title of the play signals, Richard shares the spotlight with Richmond, the dark horse (Nathan Blyth). In Brittany, under the mostly benevolent eyes of opportunist Duke Francis (James Parsons), the future Henry VII and his uncle Jasper Tudor (Phil Hemming) live from hand to mouth with their inept Welsh servant, watching the turning of the political tide across the strait. With the economically motivated help of the Duke, the exiles manage to gull an English ambassador, raise an army, and, after an early failed attempt, establish Henry as a serious contender to the throne, and once more invade. With the reluctant and tardy support of Lord Stanley (David Claridge), Margaret Beaufort’s (Kelley Costigan) new husband, history takes is course, and Henry is victorious.
It is after Bosworth, with Richard’s departure, that Henry’s ascent to power gains its most disturbing characteristics. With all actors on stage gathered around the prone body of Richard in an almost reverent silence, Henry commands that the former king be stripped naked and carried into town slung across a horse, so that the people can witness directly the mortal shape of their former king was. Appalled mumbling follows; the nobles cannot comprehend this coarse treatment of a vanquished foe, and the common soldiers are stunned by the unnecessary cruelty.
This moment marks Henry’s new identity as King of England. In a heart-breaking moment, the indomitable Duke Francis asks a newly crowned Henry to redeem his debt of honour and supply military and financial aid in the first stages of the Mad War. Henry blankly refuses, to the barely repressed anger of Jasper, and the Duke, in a sudden flash of bleak realisation, sees the imminent fall of his small realm. His despair is palpable as he stumbles off stage.
The seduction of monarchic rule, and Henry’s possible redemption shapes the rest of the play. Dead Richard reappears at the end, emerging from his seat at the back of the audience, to taunt Jasper; no matter how strenuously he fights on his king’s behalf, the ghost reminds us, absolute power corrupts absolutely. We are left with history.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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