Their Majesties' Butchers

Edward Hall's gutsy staging of Henry VI ratchets up the gore

Forget the hunks of hacked meat for a moment. It's sound that sets the ominous tone of Rose Rage, the galloping version of Shakespeare's Henry VItrilogy adapted by Roger Warren and director Edward Hall. Steel rasps against steel, blade scrapes strop in a rhythmic underscore that marks the accelerating tempo of violence in Henry's divided realm. More than the pulverizing of pigs' livers and the smashing of red cabbages that accompany stabbings and beheadings in Hall's visceral staging, the thwack and thrum of weapons being readied pierce the imagination like hooks as the War of the Roses unseams the nation from nave to chops.

Written early in Shakespeare's career (and possibly with the assistance of other writers), the three parts of Henry VI are widely regarded as paeans to Queen Elizabeth as they look back at England's barbarous times under usurping kings. Scholars have also long pointed to these plays as raising deep questions about monarchy and nationalism; they've traced, too, the inventiveness and layering of imagery that characterize Shakespeare's later works.

Edward Hall—son of RSC founder Sir Peter Hall—is more interested in the stark tale of blood and gore. He and Warren have eviscerated the St. Joan plot entirely from Part 1 and cut away much of the political debate that gives Parts 2 and 3 a context for the unraveling of the rule of law. The result, while not the most nuanced reading, is a thoroughly engaging and resourceful production that emphasizes the unstoppable horrors of vengeance.

Clocking three and a half hours, Rose Rage (bloated into a Marketable Event with a 75-minute dinner break and two intermissions) charged into London in 2002 after a successful run in Watermill with the all-male Propeller troupe. Last year, Hall re-created the production with local actors at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, who have now brought it to 42nd Street. Despite some shorthand cheap shots (Scott Parkinson's Margaret is gratingly campy and Jay Whittaker's Richard mincingly mannered), the company is as sharp and strong as the knives they wield. For New Yorkers, Rose Rage, which ends with Richard poised to claw his way to the crown, comes at a propitious moment, setting us up for Richard III at the Public Theater (and, heaven forfend, four more years of George W.).

About that meat: Extending the slaughterhouse imagery that runs through Parts 2 and 3, Hall has set the play in a Victorian abattoir of clanging metal lockers and clamorous cleavers. The 12 actors—who play some 30 roles—take turns in the chorus of butchers. Dressed in stained white coats and surgical masks, they chop and slash quivering offal and take axes to cabbages in a Kabuki-like illustration of battlefield bloodbaths and internecine murders. Never as scary as the matter-of-fact hacking by Fred Neumann in the 1984 Mabou Mines production of Through the Leaves, or as productively shocking as the Dionysian reveling among fish and chicken parts in Carolee Schneemann's 1964 Meat Joy, Rose Ragestill finds its objective correlative in the stylized blood and guts. In Hall's brutal world, it's meat and emotion.

 
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