Edward III, by William Shakespeare, The Gielgud Theatre, London




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Royalist or republican, who can forget the image of the princes royal, heads bowed in sombre respect, quartering the guard on HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother's coffin in Westminster Hall this year. Awe-struck onlookers, having queued for hours to file past the standard-draped casket, noticeably moved by the simplicity and proximity of this display of royal reverence and affection. The cold mud-grey stone reflecting the flickering gloom-laden candles and the dais-raised and palled coffin in isolated authority were enlivened by the giddying red and gold of the military dress uniforms of the princes. This was colour and splendour broadcasting power and supremacy to all who gazed on this royal display of solidarity in grief. This was more than mere politics, more than individual mourning; this was a moment in history, no matter how we may balk and buck and bite at the royal hand that feeds our tourist industry, a pure visual moment of history.

The power of this image is repeated on the stage of the Gielgud Theatre, London, where the RSC triumphantly presents Edward III, a stunning play only belatedly attributed to William Shakespeare. Lords of the realm stand in silent vigil around a crown-bearing neo-medieval throne of England . Dressed in tailored Edwardian-style dress military uniforms -- early twentieth century Edward the VII that is -- and draped with sumptuous red floor length cloaks, these noble actors prove the power of colour and display in the exercise of authority. No wonder the Elizabethan nobility sought to enforce those Sumptuary Laws -- laws that made it a punishable offence to wear 'colour' beneath one's station -- to ensure the hoi poloi knew their respective place; the old adage 'manners maketh man' should be revised to 'colour maketh authority'.

The vortex-red cloaks bear the badge of the Order of the Garter positioned over the hearts of the English nobles. The badge, a blue velvet circle bearing the gold inscription Honi soit qui mal y pense (Shame be to him who thinks evil of it), the whole encompassing the cross of St George, is an artful reference to a chivalric order founded by Edward III after the Battle of Crécy in 1346, a conflict which provides the main action of this fast moving battle-packed play, and an Order still conferred to this day by the sovereign on twenty five senior British knights of the realm.

Within this group appears the King of England, Edward III himself, whose cloak, though echoing the lords around him, is more magnificent, more resplendent, lined throughout with thick white ermine-like fur, a fine gold artificer-wrought crown atop a splendid majestic head. David Rintoul, as the king, commands the stage with his regal presence. An actor of natural grace and dignity, of fallible manliness and charm, Rintoul is ideal as this personification of medieval honour and chivalric duty.

All is not well in the kingdom though. The Scots are causing trouble in the north, and France refuses to recognize Edward's right of succession to the French throne. The invocation of archaic Salic Laws, which prevented any but a male to rule in France , effectively removes Edward's claim to French royal birthright through his late mother, Isabel of France. Such issues would be dear to the hearts of the Elizabethan audiences of the time, their own queen an ageing and heirless spinster, and the succession by no means a settled issue.

Receiving the support of the French Lord Robert of Artois, passionately played by Sean Hannaway, Edward decides to face his marauding enemies in the north before confronting the problems over France. Immediately we are transported to the castle of the Countess of Salisbury, besieged by the Scottish King David, whose heather-hued tartan trouse and sash, overlaid with glistering chain-mail, again visually announces the rank and realm of these Celtic participants in the play.

Unsympathetically written as intent on rape and pillage, common thieves attacking the helpless English noble lady, Antony Byrne displays King David's bravado and energy, along with his comic horror and fearful cavortings on the news that Edward is galloping to the fair maiden's rescue. In this play the Scots are treated with disdain and ridicule, as brigands and cut-throats, as rustlers and rapists, as common thieves and opportunistic robbers. Published anonymously in 1596, and written some time between 1592 and 1595, no wonder this play lay idle and unrecognized during the Jacobean period and failed to gain inclusion in the posthumous First Folio of 1623. Who would dare to insult their Scottish-born King James by resurrecting such base and volatile anti-Scot material? The Elizabethans of the early '90s, however, aware of James's claim to succeed the queen and basking in the militaristic after-effects of defeating the Spanish Armada, might have enjoyed this pseudo-libellous pantomime with xenophobic glee.

The Salisbury 's castle is ephemerally painted on a stage-effect backcloth, its stylized turrets as perceptively distorted as the iconography of a medieval manuscript, the back-lit gauze magically allowing the Countess of Salisbury to overlook her two-dimensional battlements and observe the antics of the attacking Scots. On the arrival of the English king, the Countess descends to greet her saviours, only to be confronted with her regal master who instantly falls in love with her grace and beauty.

Caroline Faber glides in her white Rapunzel-like dress, every inch a fairy-tale princess, an icon of neo-Arthurian legend and romance. Faber's delivery is natural and subtle, her rich voice, like chocolate coated velvet, seduces the susceptible king who falls into a state of abject lust. With the aid of his secretary, the broad-Welsh Lodowick played with impeccable timing by Wayne Cater, Edward attempts to compose his love-ode to this morally forbidden fruit. It is credit to Cater that his appearances at the most unexpected times throughout the play are greeted by warmth and recognition by the Gielgud audience, who identify comic genius at work. Scurrying on and off stage, Cater's Lodowick is reminiscent of a wise-cracking Bud Abbott out of a naive Private Doberman in Bilko.

The King may attempt to gain the sexual favours of a noblewoman's heart, even tricking her own father the honourable Earl of Warwick played with paternal dignity and strength by Joshua Richards, into championing the king's immoral cause, but he is unaware of the moral fortitude of this 'true English lady.' Edward III teems with references to honour and the oath, whether it be allegiance to the crown, to one's country or to the sanctity of marriage; honour and Englishness as glorified with patriotic fervour and self-congratulatory delight. Edward realises his wrong, pleads forgiveness of the Countess, elevates her father and readies the anxious nobles for the next job in hand -- the invasion of France.

Transported to the coast of Flanders, we meet the suavely arrogant King John of France, played with machiavellian panache by Michael Thomas, who picnics as his French naval fleet battle to prevent the English gaining a foothold on Europe 's shores. The auditorium rumbles with the Richter-rich booms of far-off canon-fire, our ears treated to the aural images created by Martin Slavin's evocative sound direction. The French bravado is short-lived as news arrives that the fleet is defeated, the English landed, and the theatre of war is opened and ready to enact those bloody battles that foretasted the Hundred Years' War.

Visual puns are used effectively and sparingly throughout the play. The second act opens with the opposing kings mounted on towering tennis umpire seats, the war a game of Tudor Real Tennis in which Lodowick records the score with a giant abacus of red and blue skulls. The dead tallying the dead. The ranks of battle-ready nobles are swelled by the addition of a new warrior, bedecked in iridescent black armour, awaiting the glory of battle by which to gain the final accolade, a knighthood. This is none other than the king's son himself, Edward Prince of Wales -- The Black Knight.

Jamie Glover portrays all the youthful vigour of the young Prince Edward itching to prove himself in combat, displaying the honour and chivalric dignity of this young Plantagenet with distinguished charm and vitality. When faced with the scorn of the French who outnumber him and surround him on the field, Prince Edward defies their mocking advances, only permitting himself to reveal a private human fear to his trusty Lord Audley, magnificently portrayed by Colin McCormack, who sagely advises that 'To die is all as common as to live/ [...] For, whether ripe or rotten, drop we shall,/ As we do draw the lottery of our doom.'

The English are symbolically enmeshed within a web of French deceit: tight hawsers stretch randomly across the stage, criss-crossing the action and intensifying the visual representation of claustrophobic battle-hungry death. The hawsers are dismantled as the English advance on their French foes; France's ranks already swollen by Bohemian and Russian troops represented by a Prussian-preening King of Bohemia and a chest-swollen Red-Square strutting fur-hatted Captain from Moscow, played with cartoon character delight by David Acton and Paul Bentall. The final barrier to the English, the hawser fronting the besieged city of Calais, is removed with its capture: King Edward is triumphant.

Siân Howard, as Edward's Queen Philippa, arrives swollen in pregnancy, accompanied by the English Squire, John Copeland, played with Yorkshire earthiness by Paul Bentall. Copeland has single-handedly captured the Scottish King David, but much to the annoyance of the queen refuses to hand his captive over to any but Edward himself. Despite this comic moment, news of the supposed death of the Black Prince, supplied with sorrowful dignity by David Acton's Earl of Salisbury, prompts an expression of maternal grief from Howard that is moving and sincere; a mother's pain echoes in her voice whilst her guilt-torn husband watches on with agonized impotency. This dark moment is miraculously broken by the arrival of Glover's Prince Edward, dragging the French royalty unceremoniously behind him. The battle is won, and the English can return triumphant to their native shores.

The Elizabethan audience was either unaware or willing to accept the conflation of the Battles of Crécy and Poitiers, fought a decade apart by Edward and the Black Prince. Many historical periods and episodes collide and reconstitute themselves within a play which provides a fanciful image of medieval honour and chivalry amongst the Plantagenet royalty. To claim to have learnt your English heritage from Shakespeare's history plays is nearly as fanciful as trusting the historical accuracy of the televisual Blackadder and his hereditary exploits. Edward III is far more illustrative of the time it was written than it is an historically accurate chronicle of medieval conquest; to the Elizabethans this two hundred and fifty year old adventure story is the stuff of jingoistic pride and nationalistic fervour.

What is great about this play is the way it captures the hearts and minds of the audience. The Gielgud was spell-bound on this opening night. Rollicking along like a medieval war-horse, perfectly paced and full of subtle shifts in dynamic, Edward III is a justifiably great, if somewhat raw example of the thirty year old Shakespeare's work. Anthony Clark's enthusiastic direction has certainly done justice to the play. A delight from beginning to end, this rarely performed piece is a 'must see' of British theatrical history.

© Kevin Quarmby 2002