Wars of the Roses: Crash course history lesson

So, the Wars of the Roses: an interminable generational feud that leads to the collapse of government, the slaughter of innocents, bloodthirsty warlords, foreign intervention, an extremist insurrection and mass beheadings. I blame Tony Blair.

How the hell did we get here? Well, like most problems in life, it all starts with 


William the Conqueror (French-ish) invades in 1066 after a punch-up outside a pub in Hastings, giving a bloke called Harold one in the eye. 

Blinding shot

His sons, William Rufus & Henry, then rule one after the other, until 1135 Henry’s daughter, Matilda, ascends the throne. However, the nobles detest the idea of being ruled by a Roald Dahl character, so ask her cousin Stephen to step in. An unseemly tussle ensues until Stephen allows Matilda’s son, Henry II, to have a go. 

So far, so linear.

Because his dad, Geoff, is the Count of Anjou, it is widely accepted that Henry II is the first of the great ‘Angevins’. Remember that all of them up until this point rule a sizeable chunk of France as well as England, but it’s in the twelfth century that the combined territories come to be considered as a full-on, no-messing empire with stoomtroopers & droids & Lords of the Sith & stuff. 

The court of Henry II

Crucially, you can also now bring over a donkey duty-free on the ferry from Calais. Good times.

Geoff is also one for wearing a plant (Planta) called ‘broom’ (Latin: ‘Genista’) on his T-shirt. So Henry II unofficially adopts this as his surname: Plantagenet. Pretentious but memorable. It’s a name we’ll be returning to in our great trilogy in Kingston – as is another convention that gets its first outing under Henry II, namely the pain-in-the-arse prelate who thinks he’s God’s gift and who can’t keep his mouth shut. (Oliver Cotton plays the ‘pestiferous, lewd, licentious’ Bishop of Winchester for us.) Henry II eventually has his turbulent priest, Thomas Beckett, silenced by some squaddies in Canterbury Cathedral. But by now, it’s too late: a precedent has been set, and we’ll be putting up with gobby bishops taking potshots at the executive for the next nine hundred years. 

Turbulent priest

After Henry II comes his son, Richard the Lionheart, who’s memorable chiefly for being one of the first in a long line of deluded young men to travel to the Middle East to help impose a religion on some poor sods who merely want to get on with their lives. Thankfully, he’s prevented from returning after the authorities take away his passport, leaving his idiot younger brother, John, to balls things up entirely. With pleasing constitutional consequences all round.


With Magna Carta, John places himself and England’s future sovereigns within the rule of law. This means that, in theory, English kings & queens can no longer do whatever the hell they like. (In public at least.) 


Obviously, this theory will be tested to destruction a number of times – not least by one Richard III, child killer, tyrant, war-pig, car-park. But I run before my horse to market.

Son of John, Henry III, takes over in 1216, but he’s only nine years old, so OFSTED-registered childminders tend to the nation while he plays with his X-box. We have a Magna Carta now, of course, so the thing pretty much runs itself – until Henry grows up and it all starts to go wrong. His voice breaks, he starts spitting and swearing and getting into porn, and before you can say ‘fledgling constitutional monarchy’, he’s shoved the charter down the back of the sofa & started picking fights with his barons again, just like his dad. (Oh, and having a pop at the French, ‘coz that’s what you do when you grow up.) Still, he gives England it’s very first parliament. Which is nice.

Next up, the first of many Edwards. Son of Henry III is Edward I, Hammer of the Scots. A bit of a thug, he wanders up and down the M1 picking on anyone unlucky enough to get in his way. 


He first has a go at the Welsh, ultimately stealing all of Wales and stashing it in a couple of suitcases in Westminster Abbey. In the process, he slays the Prince of Wales, Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, and gives the title to his son, Edward – who is at least a damn sight easier to pronounce. Other notable scraps: he executes Scottish rebel William Wallace (Nicola Sturgeon played by Mel Gibson with a blue face.) And meanwhile, the Irish are having to pay for all this exorbitant fighting. So, a fairly unpleasant period for everyone apart from the English. Thank God someone invented rugby union.

Edward II succeeds Edward I. He is his fourth son, and only succeeds to the throne in 1284 when his elder brother, Alphonso, dies. In spite of the fact that Edward is clearly hopeless at being a King and has a boyfriend called Piers Gaveston, the general public are just relieved at not having someone called Alphonso on the throne, so are happy to put up with their new King’s deficiencies. Ultimately however, their antipathy to someone named after an indigestion remedy becomes even harder to put up with: Gaveston is executed, and the King kidnapped and buggered with a red-hot poker. 

Which really does give him heart-burn.

Edward II’s son, called, startlingly, Edward III, succeeds to the throne in 1327 – and this is where it all starts to get pertinent to us & our endeavours in Kingston. (This is also where you need to concentrate because this gets effing complicated from here on in.) Indeed, you could argue that Edward III is the root cause of the unholy car-crash that is the fifteenth century:

a) He starts a war with the French which effectively is still being fought a hundred years later at the start of our Wars of the Roses trilogy. (Hundred Years War.) 

b) He has lots of sons. Look at this. (But not for too long, otherwise your eyes start to bleed.)


The eldest of these sons is Edward, the Black Prince. (Not to be confused with the Black Death, another gentleman quite popular at the time). The Black Prince dies young (not of the Black Death but of amoebic dysentery, a different complexion altogether), which means that his son, Edward III’s grandson, Richard II, inherits the crown in 1377. Three other sons of Edward III that survive and have kids are, in order of succession: 

  • Lionel, Duke of Clarence (who has a daughter, Phillipa);
  • John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, yes that’s right, folks, LANCASTER (who has a veritable blizzard of progeny from various wives and mistresses, all of whose offspring go on to populate our production, Lancastrians & Beauforts galore, principal and most important among them being his only surviving son from his first marriage, Henry Bolingbroke);
  • and Edmund Langley, Duke of York, yep you got it, York, once more, folks, with feeling, YORK (who has two sons, Richard of Cambridge & someone else, I forget).

Richard II turns out to be yet another waste of royal space more interested in his wardrobe – and doesn’t have any kids. Foolishly, he nicks all Henry Bolingbroke’s conkers following a playground competition and passes them round his mates. And so in 1399, said Bolingbroke returns in a fury & boots Richard off the throne, claiming the crown by right of (and here, a dangerously modern concept is introduced into proceedings) superior merit. Bolingbroke starts off by merely demanding his conkers back – but ultimately finds kingship to his liking and stays put, putting Richard to death (probably), but allowing him a glorious closing speech by William Shakespeare.

So, as Trevor is very keen to point out to the cast, here is a gigantic fork in the road, one which will have everyone apologising, praying and paying with money, sanity & lives throughout most of the next century. The line of royal succession all the way from 1066 to 1399 has been uninterrupted, father to son or grandson for 333 years. But here, for the first time since the Norman Conquest, the crown is physically wrested from a sitting king and handed on to a junior branch in the bloodline by force of arms. 

Henry Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV, and spends the rest of his reign putting out fires & being embarrassed by his delinquent eldest son who spends his time getting wrecked with an obese unemployed painter & decorator on a nearby council estate. So, payback of sorts for the usurper, you might think. However, all comes good when the delinquent glue-sniffer graduates from Hooligan Hal to Henry V: superman, war-machine, Olympic gold-medallist. 


Hal starts (continues?) a fight with the French and returns in glory, having breathtakingly won on penalties in extra-time. He then jumps the French Kings’s daughter’s bones, and hey presto, she gives birth to a baby boy. Result. 

So, England victorious, the new Lancastrian line secure, and the French shown who’s boss. Sweet as. And then Henry ruins things by kicking the bucket. 

I feel an opening scene coming on…


Wars of the Roses: Parenthood

The Boy celebrated his second birthday earlier this week. And today, Sunday, we were out celebrating with him on a picnic rug with friends & family in Dulwich Park. He spent the day collapsing onto Tupperware, smearing strawberries over his face, and stumbling like a weekend drunk through the rain. At one point he stood beneath a tree a little distance from us, put his hand in the air & bellowed, as if declaiming. His father’s son. Didn’t quite get around to feeding the ducks, which would have been the icing on the cake. He loves feeding the ducks: planted between his parents at the edge of the lake approximating a quack, then launching his bread at the water and missing. He’s obsessed with cows too. And Thomas the Tank Engine. Oh, and smacking his dad in the kisser.

On his actual birthday last week, at half five in the morning, with sunrise glowing behind the curtains, a little hand was battering me in the face, and a not-so-little voice was entreating me to sing happy birthday – or, to be precise, “arpi bada!” – for the fifteenth time in succession. He reared over me in bed like a monstrous blonde angel, yelling & pummelling, with one simple aim: to transform by sheer force of will the encrusted farting lump of sleep and hair in front of him into his essential, exclusive, vaguely Olympian Dadda. He succeeded (with a little help from his mother & a gigantic mug of coffee-flavoured caffeine), and before you could say: “Jesus, who IS that child??” I was upright and reading him one of the legion of Mr Men books that he’d spent a gleeful half hour unwrapping from spangly paper inches from my right ear. That morning, I recounted the tale of Mr Lazy


who, with splendid irony, is wrenched from his placid little life by a certain Mr Busy & Mr Bustle, two besuited tyrants whose job it is to introduce our hero to a new world of exertion and profound stress.

Two years ago, life was so much more straightforward. There was no-one punching me in the face at the crack of dawn demanding I perform (if you don’t count a few unfortunate liaisons in my twenties); there was no peculiar rivalry with someone two feet high for the affections of my wife (if you don’t count that dwarf in Munich); and there was no toddler-shaped drag-anchor of anxiety, excitement & pride that remorselessly propels a parent away from the dreary, daily shallows of me, myself & I. Fatherhood rocks and no mistake – but you don’t half have to extend your mental horizons. And become proficient at ducking a toddler’s right hook.

I now find myself making decisions not based on their general efficacy to myself and my own journey through the world, but on how they impact on the Boy. This is right and proper and surely a natural human instinct, as expressed in this simple equation: 

(New thing arrives in cave, squawks, deafens tribe) + (sharp urge to leave cave with mates / bring back over shoulder carcass of wild animal / Calpol) = (thing quietens down, happy family, happy cave).


The Uggs, Christmas, 100,000 BC

However, I  didn’t expect this principle to manifest quite so brazenly in my own 21st century version of the sum: I am ashamed to say that, in August 2013, literally in his first week of life, I was dragging the Boy and his poor confused mother round various streets in South London searching for property to buy – my almost unconscious, reflexive response to him being suddenly & ineluctably in the world. If I now contemplate being blown to pieces by a bomb on a bus by a lunatic, it’s no longer the momentary rending of flesh that keeps me awake at night but the Dadda shaped hole it would make in the Boy’s entire life. I now (occasionally) go to the gym because I fret about staying alive, rather than (occasionally) wondering if a paunch says something basically perjorative about me that can’t be alleviated by the standard-issue raised eyebrow and useful line in self-deprecation. In short, my centre of gravity has comprehensively shifted.

And what it has shifted to is one-part crazed child development to two-parts legacy. ISA accounts, wills, committing a minor civil infringement to get a name on some bollocks elite list for something or other. You know, the shit-blizzard of bureaucracy & subdued panic that is child-rearing in 21st century Britain. 

Now, there seems to be a universal (often self-serving) narrative stalking the land looking for a fight, saying parenthood makes you a better person. I think that narrative is a well-meaning bully. Some of the most murderous tossers are patres familias. 


 The Husseins, Baghdad, Christmas 1989

Having a sprog does not de-fang us, but merely hides the fangs in a ridiculous gum-shield formed by the action of making coo-ing noises over a cot for hours at a time. The nashers are still there however, silently glinting in the night as we patrol our offspring’s potential like a predatory animal – where before children, we only patrolled our own. (Or indeed, for the slackers and permanently stoned amongst us, didn’t bother patrolling at all.) It’s a shorter journey than you might think from pretending to know the New Testament in order to get your pride & joy into a school with playing-fields & high expectations, to the abbatoir of Syria, say. And that journey always starts with the sweetest, most nurturing love a human being is capable of feeling. To protect and advance the object of that love though, and a whole set of infinitely less glorious impulses kick in: aquisitiveness, the relentless hunt for security, the gruelling striving for impregnable advantage. In the wrong place, in the wrong time, in the wrong hands, these impulses can lead to a bloodbath.

So what, I hear you ask, does this fist-in-mouth angst about modern child-rearing have to do with my current day-job? Well, this: it could reasonably be argued that one of Shakespeare’s great themes and preoccupations, worked out and expressed in play after play in different permutations and plots, is parenthood. What it is to be a son or daughter, what it is to be a mother or father. From Hamlet, King Lear & the Roman plays, through most of the Comedies, all of the Romances, and most urgently in the Histories, he is concerned with the obligations and restrictions attendant on both roles, even when they’re adoptive or metaphorical roles. Even when neither parenthood or offspring are present as concerns for the characters in question – as with the Macbeths – they’re absence becomes horribly relevant to the wider world. “He has no children!” cries the distraught Macduff on hearing of the slaughter of his own ‘pretty ones’ by the childless tyrant. (And as in Macbeth, it’s noticeable that in Shakespeare’s earlier study in tyranny, Richard III, children and their destruction become the obsession of the tyrant: a means of killing tomorrow, preserving the present regime in aspic, ultimately sterile, static & centred on one self-consumed individual.)

More than any of his other plays, parenthood lies at the very core of Shakespeare’s depiction of the Wars of the Roses. We have the central phantom relationship of Henry VI himself attempting to make sense of his role as King in the mighty space left by his dead father. Duke Humphrey is a surrogate father for the young king, out of whose shadow the King ineffectually tries to crawl. There is old and young Clifford, one who avenges the death of the other by butchering York’s youngest child, the little Earl of Rutland. Queen Margaret, she-wolf of France, patron-saint of tiger-mothers, becomes self-consciously bestial in the championing of her son. As York says: “Oh tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” This, in anguished response to Margaret’s taunting of York with a cloth drenched in the blood of his little boy, Rutland. And in one of the most gut-wrenching scenes of the three plays, the hapless King Henry watches as a nameless man mourns the son he has unwittingly slaughtered in battle, whilst another nameless combatant mourns the father he has killed.

Now, for sure, Shakespeare is describing in these plays what happens to a country when loyalty to God & King gives way to naked self-interest, one explanation for civil war that, allowing for different terminology & context, still sounds about right. But no-one here is thinking exclusively about themselves – they’re nearly always thinking about where and how their children (or family or clan) stand to benefit, either under the current regime or any prospective new one. The whole series of plays starts with the funeral of Henry V, the first and mightiest fallen father, with everyone – not least his son – desperately trying to preserve his legacy throughout the ensuing decades. The Duke of York, the great challenger for the throne, is progressively more distraught at the loss of the French territories because he sees them as his birthright to be handed on to his sons. These boys, schooled in war, have been raised on a grievance of wrongful deprivation of their birthright. And what York fights for all his life is eventually passed on – steeped in blood – to Edward, the eldest. So, crazed child development & legacy on an imperial scale.

Incidentally, during the first great battle scene in the second play, Edward IV, only Richard, the deformed dog of war, is prepared to fight to the death to defend his father in his hour of need. Indeed, in one of those wonderful light-bulb moments that often happen at this stage in rehearsal, Alex Hanson’s York and his malevolent warrior off-spring, Robbie Sheehan’s Richard, tenderly embrace as father and son, Richard having come to his father’s aid whilst his brothers have fled the field. Suddenly, we get a brief glimpse of a startlingly heroic Richard whose father’s influence & legacy will inform everything he does from now on right the way through to the bitter end at Bosworth. That’s a character insight into this most iconic of Shakespearean villains that you can only get when you do these plays together, and never when Richard III is presented as a stand-alone star-vehicle.

I got chatting about parenthood to the lovely Alex Gilbreath…

…during a morning tea-break earlier this week. I had been proudly brandishing photos of the Boy on my phone unwrapping his Mr Men books earlier that morning. (Parents of young children in an acting company tend to recognise one another early on in proceedings by a certain hollow gaze and tendency to occasionally lean against a wall with their eyes shut mid-conversation. Before suddenly regaining consciousness and pouncing on unwary passers-by to show off photographs on their iPhone.) And the conversation turned to how being a parent informed our acting in these three plays.

Alex plays Queen Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV & mother to the doomed princes in the Tower, and she talked about how being a mother herself was giving her scenes immense extra ballast in rehearsal. Representing the killing of a child on stage – or indeed the mother of a (soon-to-be) dead child – when you’re a parent yourself is a very, very different proposition from when you’re a childless twenty or thirty-something. A whole different ball-game. Alex says you become newly wired into the universe when you have a child, and to the extent that all your emotional wires become taut and tuned to the highest pitch, that’s damn right. I poked my head round the door to watch a rehearsal of the scene in Richard III where Elizabeth is informed that her precious boys are to be held in the tower, with their mother denied all access to them and with the threat of something ghastly waiting in the wings, unable to see or be with them, to hold, comfort or protect them when they’re afraid and alone, and on the point of death. In other words, a parent’s absolute worst nightmare. And, it’s actually bloody hard to watch. In a way that it wouldn’t have been two years ago. Back then I might have appreciated it as a supremely moving moment with great technical dexterity from a mightily gifted actor. But it wouldn’t have made me want to rock backwards and forwards nursing an emotion that can only be described as a cold, dark scream of the soul. I lasted five minutes, and then had to repair to the gents pretending I had something in my eye.


(It helps, of course, that she’s a bloody fine actor. A few of the company went to see her in The Invisible, Beccy Lenkiewisz’s hilarious & touching play which has just closed at the Bush, about victims of government removal of Legal Aid. Alex was wonderful as the harassed, conflicted, warmly wry solicitor at the heart of the drama.)

Alex Gilbreath (Queen Elizabeth) & Robbie Sheehan (Richard III)

Of course, we may be parents, but we are all also children to parents, still with us or dearly departed. I guarantee that amongst the first audience every actor in this company ever had were their mum & dad, looking on proudly & slightly misty-eyed. Still with me, forty years later, clear and distinct as today, is my father’s gigantic smile beaming out from the middle of a packed 1970s school assembly hall, completely oblivious to the fact that his youngest son (King Herod in an ill-fitting spangly cloak made out of a tea-cloth) had clearly forgotten his lines. Our parents are our most important audience – and in a way, we never stop performing for them.

  The Oakeshotts, Christmas 1969

So I leave you with a favourite passage of childhood memory and reverie from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway:

For she was a child, throwing bread to the ducks, between her parents, and at the same time a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew larger and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said: 

“This is what I have made of it! This!”


Wars of the Roses, Rehearsal Week 1: History lesson

Due to the delayed nature of this blog, it’s necessary for me to go back & intermittently view various periods of rehearsal in retrospect, alongside more current day-to-day musings. I’m approaching all this as a scrapbook, a collection of snapshots of the whole project, gloriously out of sync & beholden to nothing linear whatsoever. An orderly line of succession is for kings, queens & theatre directors, got it??

Having said that, let us begin at the beginning, Day 1, Tuesday 14th July: the first gathering at base camp, Mount Bastard. It’s just the actors, stage management and Trevor to kick off proceedings this week, saving the meet’n’greet with everyone else til the week following. Lovely to see some faces from previous jobs – Olly Cotton & Jim Creighton – both of whom I worked with on a previous Nunn production: Royal Hunt of the Sun at the National in 2006 (oddly enough, another theatrical monster that involved hairy men with swords shouting at each other for a couple of hours every evening).


During the customary handshakes & back-slapping from fellow actors comes the warm embrace of the ageless Trevor. The man is charm incarnate. Indeed, to be ‘Trev-d’ has become a generally accepted term in the industry, which describes the effect on an actor of an immensely fulsome & simultaneous hug/back-rub/twinkly greeting from the great man which comprehensively reduces said actor to a piece of moist Play-doh capable of learning lines. Suitably invigorated & loved-up, we all gather round the table & get comfortable.


When Trevor gets going, there’s no stopping him. So kick off your shoes, pour yourself a Scotch & listen up…

He begins by talking movingly of his very first encounter with Peter Hall at Cambridge University over fifty years ago. Hall was giving passionate voice at a public meeting to the proposition of what would ultimately become the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon. A few years following, Trevor would make the pilgrimage to Stratford to see the RSC’s production of Hall & Barton’s reworking of Shakespeare’s four-play history cycle (Henry VI parts 1, 2 & 3, & Richard III) into the three-play Wars of the Roses. He sat at the back of the auditorium utterly mesmerised, and in a vaguely epiphanic moment, realised that Stratford and the RSC was where he wanted to work and thrive for a substantial part of his professional life. Peter would become Trevor’s mentor and inspiration over the next few decades, with Nunn going on to helm the RSC and National Theatre in Hall’s footsteps. And as the years passed, Trevor harboured a growing desire to one day re-stage in its entirety that original gargantuan production of the Wars of the Roses that he’d witnessed in the 1960s. 

Enter stage left the Rose Theate in Kingston, initially run by Peter Hall, and a theatrical space built in the early years of the millenium to the original specification of the Rose Theate on Bankside, Philip Henslowe’s great flea-pit of the late 1580s. This malodorous, Elizabethan barn launched the careers of Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kydd and a certain promising young actor/playwright called William Shakespeare – and therefore was the site of Shakespeare’s earliest works, including the great history cycle that seems to be taking up rather a lot of our time nearly 425 years later. So, full circle, the M25 notwithstanding. 

Also, hearing Trevor talk today, it strikes me that with Peter Hall now in retirement, the whole project can be seen as a valedictory salute to the master himself as dusk descends.


Wars of the Roses Day 17: Better late than never

Welcome to my blog of Trevor Nunn’s theatrical spectacular, Wars of the Roses, Peter Hall’s & John Barton’s legendary reworking of Shakespeare’s tetralogy, which goes on at the Rose in Kingston in September. We’re right in the thick of rehearsals now – and this blog was supposed to start on day 1 following a rash promise to the Rose marketing team during the meet ‘n’ greet. However, I’ve been doing Taming of the Shrew in Guildford for a couple of weeks, getting ill, and I have a two year old boy who has inherited his father’s vocal projection & need for attention – so a little tricky to find the time, to be frank. Still, better late than never.

I’ll fill you in on the previous weeks’ rehearsals as we go, but for now, know that I am the Earl of Somerset (stroppy, sneering, bit of a git) & I bat for the House of Lancaster (Rose: red). Today, after legging it from one rehearsal room to another, I end up with broadsword in hand, standing opposite Robbie Sheehan with pretend limp & genuine bobble hat, and Malcolm Ranson, our fight director, eyeing his swords with what can only be described as paternal concern. Robbie plays Richard III (bad back, bad man, bad carpark), and he bats for the House of York (Rose: white). And today, he kills me. Whilst doing his best not to actually kill me. Or me him. Right now, it looks like this:

Hopefully, it’ll look better with some practice & a smattering of battle armour. The basic idea is that Richard surprises everyone by being an ace on the battlefield, in spite of his resembling a human question mark on top of two left feet. Please note Robbie’s footwear for rehearsals:


Whereas Somerset, being a Flashman-esque aristo tosser, should by rights have Richard for breakfast. Sadly for Somerset, it doesn’t quite work out that way. 

Ooops, spoilers…