Festival Theatre, Malvern, Saturday 3rd August, 2013
The Globe Theatre is touring the three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI around the country, giving some performances at the sites of actual battlefields at which actual battles took place. It’s a neat idea but I opted to see the trilogy surrounded by walls and a roof, such is my faith in the English weather.
Two platforms tower on either side of a bench with a tall backcloth. This is the simple but effective set on which the drama unfolds, and while you shouldn’t turn to Shakespeare’s histories for historical accuracy, they are a masterclass in the dramatising of seemingly unstageable events, such as the conflict between the rival houses of York and Lancaster. Shakespeare distils it down to the choosing of a red or white rose for characters to declare their allegiances. Two men fight in trial by combat, a synecdoche for the war as a whole.
First up is Harry The Sixth which not only introduces the main characters but also establishes the performance style. There is a lot of drumming. Varied beats add ceremony, pomp, tension or a militaristic air to scenes, along with other percussive noises to create mood (the cast bash their weapons off the metal set to suggest the clamour of war; a violin bow drawn across a cymbal’s edge creates an eerie atmosphere). Slow motion is used for some of the fighting, and an arrow carried across the stage to land in a character’s eye, but there is also some real-time sword play that is vigorously choreographed.
It begins with the funeral of popular king Henry V “too famous to live long” and a tough act to follow. With his successor still young and naive, the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester are at odds. Meanwhile, the Duke of York believes he is the rightful successor to the throne. Young King Henry must establish himself in France through marriage to Margaret… And immediately we are thrust into a world of intrigue and betrayal on the grand scale and it struck me how influential Shakespeare’s plays (this trilogy in particular) has been on George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones… This is the one with Joan of Arc. Played as a tomboy figure by Beatriz Romilly, this Joan sounds like she’s from somewhere north of Winterfell (Ye knaw nuthin, Jon Snaw) Joan is arrested for consorting with spirits and taken off to be burned at the stake. There is a lot of characters, a lot of names to take in but the costumes help tremendously – the characters wear medieval frocks, each a different colour, creating a sort of rainbow effect. Later, they will smear red or white war paint across their faces so we can be clear which side they’re on – a very useful device given that the cast double up and treble up on roles.
There is also a vein of humour running through the plays: some ironic remarks and some very dark quips. The cast manage the shifts in tone very well and also the inclusion of the audience, even though this audience is indoors and in darkness.
The Houses of York & Lancaster.
The second play brings Margaret to the fore, after her marriage to Henry. There is enmity between her and the wife of Gloucester. The latter performs some kind of occult ritual for which she is arrested and banished to the Isle of Man! Gloucester is arrested, wrongly accused of all sorts of crimes, and is murdered before he can come to trial. Shakespeare gives us an early CSI scene in the Earl of Warwick’s description of Gloucester’s body. Mike Grady has a powerful death scene as the Bishop of Winchester, confessing his transgressions and necking a bottle of poison. A rebel alliance, led by Jack Cade (Roger Evans) brings comedy: one man is accused of corrupting “the youth of the realm in erecting a grammar school”. Heads begin to come off and decorate the set. No character is safe.
The True Tragedy of the Duke of York.
Henry does a deal with York: he will rule quietly but upon his death, the crown will at last go to the Plantagenets. Of course, Henry’s Mrs is more than dismayed to hear this and will have none of it. Now clad in leather armour, Margaret is a warrior queen, in a splendid performance by Mary Doherty. Her arc (not Joan’s) over the trilogy is the most interesting of the lot. The Duke of York is captured and beheaded, leaving it to his sons to fight the self-righteous fight. Brendan O’Hea is a commanding figure as York – his final scene with Doherty’s Margaret is electric – and his turn as the King of France is a scream.
It is a delight to see the character who will become Richard III rising through the ranks, in a delicious performance by Simon Harrison; twisted and limping, he scuttles around the set, fighting and plotting. The final tableau, a sort of royal family portrait, with Richard holding his brother’s baby son, is chilling.
Through all of this, of course, is weak Henry, powerfully played by Graham Butler, getting across the king’s youth, naivety, piousness, and grief. Despite the character’s flaws and feebleness, Butler makes sure we like Henry and keeps us engaged throughout.
The entire company goes hell for leather in this respect. Andrew Sheridan is strong as Warwick; Garry Cooper’s Gloucester and other roles have dignity and authority (although with his beard, long purple robe and staff, Gloucester looks like Prospero wandered in from a different production!) and Joe Jameson is versatile in a range of roles, but really, the whole pack of them merit high praise indeed.
Director Nick Bagnall gives us a trilogy that flies by. It’s like watching a box set of a TV series and suddenly realising the whole day has gone. Absorbing, entertaining and inventive, this Henry VI trilogy is a must for Shakespeare and George R R Martin fans alike, indoors or out.