Sunday, 11 January 2009

Die Rosenkriege or Henry VI, parts 1, 2, 3 and Richard III

A seven hour extravaganza of malfeasance, madness and greed. It was immense. It was the final performance of Die Rosenkriege at Vienna's Burgtheater.
Mylords, Cardinals and Kings were up to their old tricks, up to their crowns and coronets in corruption, scandal, double-dealing, espionage, plastic bottles, water and, of course, oil. It ended there. Richard III's stained armour standing prone like the broken flanks of a modern iron weapon in a pool of oil in a desert. "My Kindgom for a horse!", Richard's last words before the sudden blackness that marked his end. But not quite the end for the audience. For the battle weary cast trooped into the sea of the thousand discarded plastic water bottles to give the audience a poignant rendition of Ode to Joy. The audience responsed warmly. It was a wonderful way to end:

Joy, daughter of Elysium
Thy magic reunites those
Whom stern custom has parted,
All men will become brothers
Under thy gentle wing.

Nicholas Ofczarek as the scuttering, scuttling hunch-back Richard III was stupendous. The actor demonstrated with panache the subterfuge and subversivness required to gain power, qualities that were to drive him into madness. In the final tragic scene, as he lay dying on the deserted battlefield, only the ghosts of those he had slain were there, and there only to add to the torment.
Johann Adam Oest was suitably sinister as the Bishop of Winchester, cruel as Iden, degenerate as King Ludwig and gloriously incompetent as the clueless Lord Hastings. This is a versatile actor from the top drawer.
Veteran actor Martin Schwab played Gloucester to purple perfection. Martin Reinke as York and also Catesby was wonderful too, if a little quiet at times. Johanna Wokalek as Margaret and Dorothee Hartinger, with her pregnant lump (a real one), as Queen Elizabeth (Lady Grey) worked hard to good effect. A chronicler, Hermann Scheidleder, with bell, book, mirror and music kept the audience a posteriori aware of the connections between the unfolding scenes. It was forty-five scenes in all and Scheidleder performed his task with aplomb.
As in Shakespeare's day scenery was minimal and the costumes were a delight. When the costume is right, when the costume speaks volumes the scenery can be less. It sufficed that a couple of wrestlers performing the same throws over and over again in a revolving plastic box spoke for the senslessness of war. It was enough that black gold burbled gently out of a hole in the stage floor to demonstrate what all the slaughter was really about. It was appropriately symbolic that the throne being fought over was a thick cushion. It was a stroke of genius to have the Cliffords, the father and the son, joined at the hip and marching around inside one military overcoat, as mirrors of each other. It was enough that Jörg Ratjen as Cade walked around eating a raw cabbage to speak for the starving commoners.
Die Rosenkriege was, as the saying goes, much more than the sum of its parts. It was a complete piece of theatre for the here and now. Shakespeare is timeless. And this was certainly a message for the times, perhaps even a wake-up call.
Translators Albert Ostermaier and Thomas Brasch are to be commended for the Suhrkamp Verlag published text; the 220-page programme, with its many colour photographs is a souvenir to treasure. And it will be treasured here. It was a joy to bear witness to the marathon performance. The hours flew by. It was over all too quickly.


  1. You will not forget that in a hurry. I enjoyed it second-hand and believe it or not, when you told of the singing of Ode to Joy I felt a shiver go down my spine. That shows how well you reviewed it for me. Thanks for that.

  2. Weaver, I will not, as you say, forget it in a hurry. And, yes, Ode to Joy was a shiver moment for me too. There were two intervals in the 7 hours. In the first I had a coffee and in the second a soup and a glass of red wine. A lovely evening. Got home ok and slept like a proverbial log.


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