Henry VI: Rebellion and The Wars of the Roses have recently been shown at the RSC Theatre here in Stratford-upon-Avon. Fifty-nine years ago in 1963, The Wars of the Roses opened at the same theatre. It was to become one of the seminal productions in the RSC’s history. In this article I would like to investigate its significance and uncover its presence in our archive.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust cares for the RSC’s library and archive collection which includes original photographs, prompt books, production records and designs. Some of this material can be accessed via visits to the Reading Room in The Shakespeare Centre. Through my own exploration of the RSC’s collection and our own vast library and archive, I have made some fascinating discoveries surrounding this groundbreaking theatrical event.
As opposed to two recent RSC productions, which span Henry VI Parts 2 and 3, The Wars of the Roses of 1963 comprised a trilogy of separate performances; Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III. Shakespeare’s primary source for his history plays was Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, a multi-volume work describing the historic events of England, Scotland and Ireland. First published in 1577, it was used for more than a third of Shakespeare’s plays. Edward Hall’s The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York is another early printed book in our library collection which informs our understanding of the historical context of The Wars of the Roses.
1963’s productions were directed by Peter Hall, adapted by John Barton, designed by John Bury and had music composed by Guy Woolfenden. All four are deemed pioneers in their respective fields; they contributed significantly to the RSC and offered innovative interpretations of how Shakespeare should be performed to audiences in the second half of the twentieth century.
Peter Hall (1930-2017), who was then the Artistic Director of the RSC, had been appointed in the role in 1960 at the age of 29 years. He is known for cultivating a distinctive ‘house’ style, encouraging his company to approach acting and character interpretation with fluidity. Referred to by theatre critic Kenneth Tynan as ‘Hall-marks’, Hall developed a “dry, cool and intellectual” fashion of verse-speaking, a highly disciplined method supported and described by John Barton as “a kind of rational style; we stressed the pointing up of meaning”.
Under Hall’s directorship, actors took part in long rehearsals and were given singing, movement and voice training by John Barton (1928-2018). Barton condensed the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III into the three The Wars of the Roses plays. Of the 12,350 lines of the four original plays, the scripts contain just over half of the lines, with 1,400 lines added by Barton himself. With his renowned passion for verse, he tightened the narrative which resulted in a sharp, unromantic and fast pace. On his death in 2018, the collection of John Barton was bequeathed to the RSC and deposited in The Shakespeare Centre archive.
The set and costume for The Wars of the Roses by John Bury (1925-2000) were considered to exude a timeless quality, echoing wars across the ages and of the present day. The sparse schematic style of the revolving set was on a huge scale and was flanked by steel floored staging. The “metallic-harmony” of the set acted as the perfect foil to the senseless battles enacted on stage.
Guy Woolfenden (1937-2016) wrote the music for The Wars of the Roses in six weeks, which Hall requested to be “medieval fascist” in tone. Woolfenden created a distinctive score played by seven on-stage musicians using instruments designed by himself, including a curving metal horn and an oblong box fitted with piano strings to be played to coincide with the sounds including cannon explosions. Woolfenden was Head of Music for 37 years and created over 150 scores for the company, covering the whole canon of Shakespeare plays. Following his death in 2016, the RSC received the Guy Woolfenden Collection which is also housed and cared for by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.
The ‘star’ actors who were cast in the trilogy included Peggy Ashcroft (Margaret in the three plays) and Donald Sinden (York in Henry VI and Edward IV), although Hall insisted on the cast being listed in the programme in alphabetical order. Many of the cast members had already performed at the Theatre, such as Ian Holm (Duke of Gloucester in Edward IV and Richard III in Richard III) and Janet Suzman (Joan La Pucelle in Henry VI and Lady Anne in Richard III). Few were completely new, but several were playing their first major Shakespeare parts.
Debuting in July 1963, The Wars of the Roses were an immediate triumph. As little known and long-neglected Shakespeare plays, their restoration and rediscovery aroused excitement for audiences and critics alike. The theatre volumes which are accessible in our Reading Room include gushing reviews; The Coventry Evening Telegraph stated it was an example of “magnificent theatre”, “a gruelling, demanding and wonderful experience” in which the “senses [are] stirred by a whole range of emotion”. The plays spoke directly and powerfully to modern sensibilities and of political power, individual ambition and destiny. The Evening News London reported, “the Royal Shakespeare Theatre has rarely known greater glory”. In January 1964, the plays were successfully transferred to the Aldwych Theatre in London, another remarkable feat. It was televised in 1965.
The Wars of the Roses reawakened critical and academic interest in these plays as well as in the history cycle as a whole. It paved the way for near full-text productions of the eight history plays between 1975 and 1980 by Terry Hands, who became the Artistic Director of the RSC in 1978. To this day The Wars of the Roses continue to be lauded as a landmark in the Company's achievements.
It is a privilege to work closely with exceptional theatrical archives and in particular to handle the materials of this legendary production, representing a memorable cast, an immensely influential production team and a defining moment in post-war British theatre.
To contemplate how this year’s The Wars of the Roses will manifest in the archive in years to come is an intriguing thought…
To view material in our library and archive, please visit our Reading Room web page for visiting information and to arrange an appointment.
To learn more about John Barton and Guy Woolfenden, please visit our Research Conversations page and listen to the following podcasts:
‘On The Theatre Director and Shakespearian, John Barton (1928-2018)’
‘The Music of Guy Woolfenden’