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Henry VI: Rebellion/The Wars of the Roses - Royal Shakespeare Company Review

The Royal Shakespeare Company brings to life the real 'Game of Thrones' as power and greed are the forces at play as the Henry VI's reign continues with part two subtitled Rebellion and part three subtitles The Wars of the Roses.

Following on from the 2021 Rehearsal Room project which culminated in a streamed run-through of Henry VI: Part One the story picks up here as Shakespeare's epic history cycle heads towards The War of the Roses and Richard III which the company will stage in their summer season.

The company in Rebellion. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

The epic saga continues in this wordy and action-packed doubleheader. Rebellion suffers more so for being the middle of the trilogy - though originally the two plays were originally written by Shakespeare bore part one followed after - and has to set up what follows in the final part. The War of the Roses whilst full of battles moves along at a more sweeping pace. 

Rebellion does feel like it's constantly building and it gets better as the piece moves on, especially once the leader of the rebels, Jack Cade, is introduced and Aaron Sidwell relishes the role and delivers a confident figure that you can easily believe the common person would choose to follow. 

The Wars of the Roses though is a no holds barred pacy affair as we fly through 5 battles, multiple severing of heads and rolling towards the trilogy's conclusion. There's some superb fight work done by fight directors Rache Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown who excel at bringing the battle sequences to the stage.

The power of the production is brought to life by an excellent company and Owen Horsley's superb direction allows the text to be the most important part largely without any gimmicks. The only jarring decision is not in the use of projections, which are visually impressive but when the projections require an on-stage camera it feels very jarring and distracting. The text alone is strong enough not to require this.

Stephen Brimson Lewis's set is very bare. Rebellion is hampered a little by the multi-level platforms which do very little but create movement around the stage, centre stage later becomes a large pit of gravelly ash in The War of the Roses. This works for the battle sequences but for the rest of the production, it feels very out of place.

Mark Quartley as King Henry VI in The Wars of the Roses. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Mark Quartley's Henry VI is a fascinating character to watch and central to both productions. He captures the timid weakness with real skill. The whole time you feel he becomes a little weaker throughout. Minnie Gale impresses as Henry's wife Margaret, especially her own ambitions under the surface are captured well. In The Wars of the Roses, she becomes and she-wolf warrior queen at the heart of battle. 

Oliver Alvin-Wilson commands great power as York, you can easily see how the common people would be roused to follow him and his own claim to the throne. The Wars of the Roses introduces Arthur Hughes as Richard, Duke of Gloucester and he delivers a delicious portrayal. Hughes will continue the role into Richard III and his transformation throughout the production sets up the exciting next chapter superbly

Credit must go to the RSC for incorporating both a Shakespeare Nation cast into Rebellion, a play that requires a very large company, - both the Nottingham rebels (one of 6 an amateur groups from different parts of the country) and Next Generation Act  - a group of younger actors who will be stars of the future - feel vital to the production.

In the full cannon that the RSC will complete in the summer, the history cycle that began back in 2013 with Richard II has been some of the strongest work staged. Epic compelling drama delivered by a world-class company on stage and off.

Rating: Rebellion and The Wars of the Roses both ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Henry VI: Rebellion and Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses both play at The Royal Shakespeare Company until Saturday 28th May. Tickets are available from

The company of The Wars of the Roses. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

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