The Men Who Would Be King – and the Women Who Watched Them

Melora Marshall and Jon Sprik
Photo by Ian Flanders

That splendid arcadian Shakespearean reliquary, Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, is
presenting four of the Bard’s dramas – Parts 1, 2 and 3 of Henry VI plus Richard III –
compressed, compiled and edited into a single two-act play, Queen Margaret’s Version of
Shakespeare’s War of the Roses, directed by Ellen Geer. A Shakespearean scholar and
playwright, Ms. Geer also stitched together this quartet of history plays by the “Prince of
Poets” for WGTB, which the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust awarded a commemorative
plaque with wood from Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon Garden in 2014.
Ms. Geer, who is also WGTB’s Producing Artistic Director, has given the Richard III
and the Henry VI works a decidedly feminist twist, as the tale is told from the women’s
point of view, just as composer André Previn and playwright Tom Stoppard respun
Homer’s Odyssey, by retelling that epic from the point of view of Ulysses’ wife, the
titular Penelope (see:
fleming ). Furthermore, Queen Margaret’s Version of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses
also has much to say about the depiction and treatment of individuals “afflicted” by
“disability” and “deformity,” on- and offstage.
In a nutshell, the War of the Roses was a 32-year-long power struggle between branches
of England’s royal House of Plantagenet that pitted the Yorks against the Lancasters,
vying for the crown in civil wars from 1455-1487. WGTB’s bloody adaptation includes
lots of onstage swordplay – there’s lots of hoopla about the special FX in the latest
iteration of Mission Impossible, but that’s nothing compared to watching a cast of dozens
dueling in the live theater, and fully utilizing and romping around the natural environs of
Topanga Canyon where this amazing amphitheater is set, for an immersive experience no
virtual reality could arguably rival. Queen Margaret’s other cinematic effects include
stage renditions of freeze frames and slow motion action. For my florins, ducats and
doubloons, watching live thesps cross swords on the boards is far more exciting than any
movie magic such as CGI FX – plus, at WGTB, you don’t have to look at Tom Cruise for
two hours and 43 minutes.
But for about as much time (including one intermission), you do have the opportunity to
see numerous gifted, charismatic thespians depicting (in many cases) actual historic – and
in some cases, histrionic – characters. The dramatis personae who appear in
Shakespeare’s dramatization of the War of the Roses include the French heroine Joan of
Arc (here called Joan La Pucelle, which refers to the teen’s virginity). I am rather
ashamed to admit that I thought Ms. Geer was fudging by inserting that adolescent saint
and freedom fighter in Queen Margaret, but it turns out that Jeanne d’Arc actually does
indeed appear in Henry VI, Part I. Who knew? Over the decades, many notable actresses
have portrayed the teenaged rabblerouser who spurred France to resist the English invaders, including Maria Falconetti, Ingrid Bergman and Jean Seberg, and now we can
add to this illustrious list Claire Simba.
A France-born actress, Ms. Simba has excellent English language elocution, although as I
recall her lines are delivered in, appropriately, a French accent. Simba’s La Pucelle is
anything but pusillanimous; she positively spits fire (no pun intended) as the fanatical
“warrior of god” who was burned at the stake for being a “witch” at Rouen in 1431.
(Although this was before the War of the Roses commenced, the cross-Channel conflicts
between England and France helped set the stage for London’s subsequent civil wars.)
Ms. Simba, whose credits include the Madame Secretary TV series, has a multiple part in
Queen Margaret, wherein she also plays Lady Anne in some pretty fancy schmancy
Middle Ages headgear. This young actress is a talent we should keep our eyes on.
Other standouts in this large cast are veterans of the WGTB troupe, including Melora
Marshall, who portrays the titular Queen Margaret. Her bravura depiction spans the
decades – just as the actual War of the Roses did – from a young blonde maiden marrying
a monarch to a white-haired wraith railing against the iniquities of the endless faction
fights to gain the crown. Willow Geer, who also has an assistant director credit,
passionately plays Duchess Eleanor and later Lady Elizabeth Grey, who get enmeshed in
the murderous mayhem. (Note: Ticket buyers might want to get sitters and leave the
kiddies at home, as this bloody production, which includes onstage severed heads (you
see, some actors really do give it their all – talk about Method Acting, LOL) upon pikes
and the offstage murder of children, may not be suitable for tykes.) Other WGTB
stalwarts who tread the Bard’s boards are the swashbuckling Max Lawrence as the Duke
of York and Gerald Rivers, as Buckingham.
To me, this epic’s best portrait was painted by Jon Sprik as Richard III, the supposedly
misbegotten monarch (Sprik also plays Suffolk). It is a portrayal of “deformity” and
“disability” – and of sheer depravity. Since birth, Richard has been endlessly calumnized
and insulted as a “crookback” who is “misshapen,” and Sprik, who according to WGTB’s
publicist is offstage what we call “able-bodied,” artfully incarnates the physical
imperfections Shakespeare has endowed his character with. These perceived corporeal
blemishes have bequeathed a deeply flawed psyche on the man who would be king at all
and any costs (including the homicides of his brothers, regal marriages of convenience
under false pretenses and so on).
Sprik perfectly captures the damaged spirit of a character who the world made suffer
because of his physical differences, and is therefore hellbent on vengeance, determined to
make the world suffer. When he murders his brother the king, Richard is not content to
merely quip that he is sending his sibling to hell, but adds that the deposed monarch
should tell Satan he sent him there. Which reminds me that the dialogue is richly
marinated with the Bard’s immortal prose and poetry. Consider the fact that the 1968
WWII movie Where Eagles Dare starring Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton likely
derived its name from this quote made by the title character in Richard III, in Act I,
Scene III: “The world is grown so bad, that wrens make prey, Where eagles dare not
perch.” William Shakespeare’s influence is everywhere in the English-speaking world, and we are fortunate that outposts such as Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum perpetuate
this literary legacy.
Having said that, the 2022 British feature The Lost King, directed by Stephen Frears and
starring Sally Hawkins and Steve Coogan, strongly disputes Shakespeare’s dramatization
of the life of King Richard III and its accuracy, ranging from his “deformed” body to his
allegedly killing his brothers to his being a “usurper” and so on. Be that as it may, this
should not distract us from the enjoyment and appreciation of Queen Margaret’s Version
of Shakespeare’s War of the Roses, which channels Shakespeare’s interpretation. The
keen 21 st century eye might also perceive contemporary references to America today,
being threatened by Trumpian pretenders to the throne and the MAGA minions
threatening to storm the palace of democracy. From the 15 th century up to now, the course
of human events remains the greatest show on Earth, awaiting the dramatist’s twists and
turns to paint it and put it into perspective.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is presenting Queen Margaret’s Version of
Shakespeare’s War of the Roses through October 1 in repertory with Macbeth, A
Midsummer Night’s Dream and A Perfect Ganesh at 1419 North Topanga Canyon Blvd.,
Topanga, California 90290 . For info and tickets: 310-455-3723 ; .

Claire Simba and Jon Sprik Photo by Ian Flanders ; Melora Marshall and Willow Geer Photo by Ian Flanders ; Melora Marshall and Max Lawrence Photo by Kevin Hudnell