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"This teeming womb of royal kings" - The History Cycle at the RSC

Thanks to local photographer Tom Holte, we can experience the stage design and costumes suggestive of combat and war throughout the centuries.

Helen Hargest

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) opened its Winter 2013 season with a new production of Richard II. Directed by the company’s Artistic Director, Gregory Doran, it marks the prelude to the staging of a new Histories cycle here in Stratford-upon-Avon. This cycle continues to inspire directors and is testament to the power of Shakespeare’s history plays to bring to life episodes illustrating a very turbulent period of English History including the Wars of the Roses, and culminating in the death of Richard III and the ascendency of Henry VII and the Tudor Dynasty. Doran’s productions of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 will open his first summer season and his own Histories Cycle in 2014, under the banner Shakespeare Nation. Over a six year period which includes two major Shakespeare anniversaries, Doran and the RSC will stage each of Shakespeare’s plays once.

During the RSC’s 1963/1964 season, Peter Hall and John Barton co-directed the history cycle known as The Wars of the Roses, which was the first time the two men had worked together on a project. For this history, Barton condensed the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III into three; Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. This involved reworking and rewriting the text, and simplifying the number of themes to concentrate primarily on showing the workings of political power during this violent period of English history. The company included Peggy Ashcroft as Queen Margaret, Donald Sinden as York and Janet Suzman as Joan of Arc (La Pucelle). David Warner a newcomer who had graduated from RADA only a year before was cast in the role of Henry VI.

Henry VI Part 1 1963 (Holte)
Tom Holte's Photo of 'Henry VI' at the RSC

Thanks to some extremely dramatic photographs in our Archive taken by local photographer Tom Holte, 50 years later we can experience the stage design incorporating a steel floored stage, and the costumes suggestive of combat and war throughout the centuries. The council table scenes remain iconic images of this production, and enabled the directors to show the fluctuations of power as the action progressed. The Wars of The Roses was a triumph for the RSC, both in developing ideas explored in the cycle directed by Anthony Quayle in 1951, and looking forward to the full-text productions of these directed by Terry Hands between 1975 and 1977.

Tom Holte Theatre Photographic Collection © Shakespeare Birthplace Trust
Tom Holte's Photo of 'Henry VI' at the RSC

And so we look forward with anticipation and excitement to the RSC’s new cycle of Shakespeare’s celebrated histories, following on from the recent and truly impressive staging of Richard II.