This Scepter'd Aisle To reclaim its crown as best at the Bard, the Royal Shakespeare Company puts on eight history plays

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Britain's royal shakespeare company (rsc) has lately been having a hard time living up to its reputation as the world's foremost interpreter of the Bard. It has seen competitors, particularly the Royal National Theatre, encroach upon its hallowed turf. But Shakespeare is the rsc's middle name and, keen to show that it's still the best, the company has mounted the Everest of Shakespearean projects: the entire history cycle from Richard II to Richard III. The eight plays tell the story of English politics and dynastic intrigue during a period when kingdoms could be won and lost in a matter of days and crowns bounced around the various protagonists like pinballs.

Mounting all eight works in their entirety is a mighty task and one the company has never before attempted. This time, 79 actors play 264 roles in a saga that uses three theaters-the Barbican, the Pit and the Young Vic-400 costumes, five liters of stage blood and five severed heads. Those who buy tickets to the whole thing get to watch almost 24 hours of theater.

But the rsc's policy of breaking the eight plays into two cycles of four seems crazy. The first group-Richard II, Henry IV parts I and II and Henry V-was launched back in March 2000 and finished last month. The second tranche, embracing the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III, continues in London until May 26.

In March the company even sent the second minicycle on a lucrative North American tour, the first product of a five-year partnership with the University of Michigan. "The U.S. is the largest English-speaking territory in the world," says rsc managing director Chris Foy. "If we are laying claim to the minds of the world we have to move into America." The University of Michigan contributed $2 million this year in what Foy hopes will be the start of a grand scheme that could propel his company into communities across the Atlantic.

Exciting as the project may be, it is a shame that a way could not be found to unite the two history halves sooner.

Although written out of order and years apart, the plays form a natural, powerful chronological progression. Since the later periods were penned first, as fast-moving historical epics with little of the care for

individual characters that the mature Shakespeare later lavished on the prequels, the effect is of a harrowing bleeding away of compassion. As the civil wars spiral out of control, sympathy for solitary victims gives way to a numb horror at the mounting carnage. Which, for anyone doubting the modern-day relevance of these works, is not so far from the reactions of television viewers barraged by blanket media coverage of atrocities in Bosnia or Rwanda.

The rsc has employed four directors for the project, giving each free rein. Hence, Steven Pimlott's modern-dress Richard II is followed by Michael Attenborough's period Henry IVs and Edward Hall's guns-and-missiles Henry V. Then it's back to robes and swords as Michael Boyd completes the cycle with Henry VIs and Richard III. While it is a jolt to finish, say, Richard II with his successor Henry IV in a business suit and then to start the next play with Henry suddenly in medieval garb, the different approaches demonstrate the works' universality.

This cycle boasts at least two star-making performances. The 24-year-old David Oyelowo is a magnificent Henry VI. His Queen meanwhile is the terrifying Fiona Bell, whose Margaret moves from manipulative beauty to a crazed outcast, dragging her slaughtered son's bones around in a sack. Earlier, Samuel West and rsc regular David Troughton proved electric as Richard II and his nemesis Bolingbroke (later Henry IV). Desmond Barritt is a sad, lyrical Falstaff, and newcomer William Houston exciting but mannered as Henry V.

Twenty-four hours is not a long time to cover 88 years of history, and it all goes at a cracking pace. The best way to see them-at London's Young Vic-is over two marathon days. By the end, as the audience applauds the cast and the cast applauds back, there is no doubt that the kingdom is worth the patience.