The Theatreguide.London Review
For the archive we have filed our reviews of several productions of Shakespeare's Henry VI on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
RSC 2001 - Rose Rage 2002 - RSC 2008
VI - Parts 1, 2 & 3
Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy may be the first plays he wrote, and may be rewrites of plays by someone else. That, along with the fact that histories aren't big ticket-sellers, means that the plays are very rarely produced, and when they are, almost always condensed down to two or even one evening. So this RSC staging of all three, its first in 25 years, is a real treat for Shakespeare buffs.
The story, as condensed as I can make it: Coming to the throne as a child, Henry is dominated by his nobles, all of whom hate each other. Their wrangling leads to the loss of England's French conquest (to Joan of Arc - this may be the only literary work in which Joan is a villain). The schemers eventually kill each other off but meanwhile the Duke of York, spotting a power vacuum and knowing he has some claim to the throne, mounts a rebellion in what Shakespeare calls the Wars of the Roses. Power passes back and forth, with the York side eventually winning, too late for the Duke, but making his son Edward IV. But Edward's brother, the hunchback Richard, is already plotting...
A striking thing about all three plays is how peripheral Henry is to the action. He doesn't appear until an hour into the first play, and the active forces on his behalf are first the scheming nobles and later his ambitious wife, Queen Margaret. David Oyelowo makes an attractively boyish Henry - open, well-meaning, capable of moments of dignity, but also prone to impotent tears and hand-wringing when out of his depth among the more sophisticated politicians. What he fails to provide is an emotional or moral core to the plays - I still remember vividly how Alan Howard, a quarter-century ago, was able to make the mainly-silent Henry a moral measuring stick against which all the other characters were found wanting.
The first play is dominated by the court infighting between Richard Cordery's thuggish Duke of Gloucester and Christopher Ettridge's slimy Bishop of Winchester, and by the French war, with the valiant English general Talbot (Keith Bartlett, making him a model of courage, honour and leadership) pitted against Fiona Bell's surprisingly sexy and bloodthirsty Joan. The most dramatically engrossing moments are the totally ignoble court intrigues (every time someone leaves the stage, those remaining regroup into new factions excluding him) and the contrasting nobility and sentiment of scenes between Talbot and his equally valiant son (Sam Troughton) before a doomed battle.
Three characters who will play big roles in Part 2 are teasingly introduced in the first play: Richard of York (Clive Wood), just beginning to see the possibility of making a run at the throne; the Duke of Suffolk (Richard Dillane), who cons the king into marriage with a minor French princess because, as her lover, he hopes to be a power behind the throne; and Margaret (Fiona Bell again), the new queen with her own agenda.
Part 2 is in many ways a cleaning-up process, clearing away some plot strands to allow the York rebellion to dominate. The most interesting thing in the first hour is the way Richard Cordery's Gloucester evolves from the brutish plotter of the first play into a rough-but-deeply-honourable defender of the King. Though he is killed off fairly early, his ghost remains, and becomes the closest this play has to a moral anchor. There's also a strong performance by Deirdra Morris as his ambitious wife, proud and dignified even in disgrace. Meanwhile, his great enemy Winchester also dies, along with a few other plotters, including Suffolk; and after a comic interlude of a peasants' revolt (with Jake Nightingale so attractive as jolly leader Jack Cade that we almost hate to see the revolt put down), the Wars of the Roses take centre stage.
Once again, Oyelowo makes Henry attractive in individual scenes, whether it be boyish love for his new queen or helplessness in the face of others' deviousness, but he still seems more a visitor to his own play than its centre. Fiona Bell's Margaret is oddly less sensual and spirited than her Joan, cold-blooded and imperious when one would expect some hint of the "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" she will show in Part 3.
Part 3 has always been my favourite of the trilogy. First, there's the Wars of the Roses, with victory passing back and forth several times between York and Margaret, and each taking the opportunity to gloat shamelessly over the other's downfall. Fiona Bell brings back some of the bloodthirsty lewdness she gave to Joan in Part 1 and, in her final downfall, hints at the madness she will display in Richard III.
And along with that, we also get young Richard of York, the Duke's hunchback son, making his first steps toward turning into Richard III. Aiden McArdle is a very attractive Richard, combining ruthlessness with some of the speech inflections of a Jewish comedian; and his big soliloquy of determined villainy (a kind of first draft of "Now is the winter") stops the show.
Other strengths include Geff Francis' Warwick, giving dignity to a role that could easily have degenerated into comedy as Warwick changes allegiances in the war every time the wind changes. And Tom Beard does play young Edward IV for comedy in the scene in which he meets Elizabeth Grey (Elaine Pyke) and somehow finds an intended seduction turning into a proposal of marriage.
Under Michael Boyd's skilful and intelligent direction, all three plays are fast moving, despite over-three-hour running times for each, and who's who and what's going on is always clear. The in-the-round staging in the intimate Young Vic space means that no-one is more than five rows from the action; and very inventive use is made of the theatre's galleries and upper spaces to surround us by the world of the plays. There are a number of inventive and evocative staging effects, such as surrounding Joan of Arc with three witch-like spirits who then return as Margaret's attendants, while one actor (Edward Clayton) plays a number of small roles that cumulatively turn him into an Angel of Death. A strong musical score by James Jones, heavy on percussion and metallic sounds, both evokes battle and sustains an ominous mood.
Frankly, however well done they may be, these are relatively minor plays, and the casual theatre-goer could be excused for skipping over them and going directly to the Richard III that concludes the story. But for the dedicated Shakespeare buff, this is a virtually once-in-a-lifetime experience, not to be missed.
Productions of Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy are like the Number 73 bus -- you can wait half your life for one, and then two come along at once. Last year the Royal Shakespeare Company gave us the especially rare treat of doing the three plays uncut, and about the same time the Watermill Theatre in Berkshire was taking a different route with this super-condensed adaptation by Edward Hall and Roger Warren which, in two barely-two-hour nights, comes in at less than half the running time of the RSC version.
Finally reaching London after a national tour, Rose Rage proves a fascinating experiment, more often successful than not. At its worst, it sometimes sacrifices characterisation (Shakespeare's strong point) to plotting (his weakest), leaving you racing through a confusing mass of intrigues without being sure, or particularly caring, who's doing what to whom. At its best, it achieves exactly the opposite, stripping away plot complexities so we can focus on the experience of a handful of interesting and sympathetic characters.
(A belated plot summary: Henry is a weak king, and infighting among his nobles not only allows the loss of all his father's French conquests but creates a power vacuum that invites the Duke of York to mount a rebellion, in what Shakespeare calls the Wars of the Roses. The York side eventually wins, lots of people die, and the Duke's hunchback son Richard begins plotting.)
Shakespeare covers this in three full-length plays focussing respectively on the loss of France, the birth of York's rebellion, and the civil war. Rose Rage condenses the first two plays into one short one, shoving most of the French material offstage and racing through the complex plotting and counterplotting of Henry's court. That makes the first play by far the weaker half, as characters pledge allegiance, doublecross each other and die off before we're even sure who they are.
The second play slows down to a half-length version of Shakespeare's Part Three, and gives us a chance to get to know the characters. Henry, York, Henry's amazonian wife Margaret and young Richard are all allowed extended scenes or speeches that help us to understand their psychology and emotions, and thus to care about what happens to them (and, not incidentally, to listen to some relatively uncut Shakespearean verse). It is thus far more satisfying as drama.
Co-adaptor Edward Hall also directs, and has made a number of design and performance choices that prove only partly successful. The plays are set in a slaughterhouse, with extras in blood-stained white coats hovering around the edges of every scene. The metaphor is more than a little heavy-handed and obvious, and even its most clever use doesn't quite justify it, as all battle scenes and onstage deaths are mimed while in the background a butcher hacks away at a hunk of meat or offal. The whole epic is done with a cast of thirteen, all male, which means a lot of doubling, especially confusing in the first half.
As Henry, Jonathan McGuinness is appropriately boyish in the first play, but evolves nicely into the moral backbone of the second. Guy Williams is a forceful and attractive York, while Richard Clothier is a little more of a thug and less of a plotter than we expect of the incipient Richard III. The idea of turning Jack Cade's speeches into a modern rap routine sounds really, really dumb, but Tony Bell pulls it off in an appealing characterisation that almost steals the first show; he returns in the second play as a Warwick more manly and less slimy than the character deserves. But the only real weak spot is Robert Hands' Margaret, far too camped-up, and with a cod accent that commutes too frequently between France and Wales.
VI, Parts 1, 2 and 3
Shakespeare's three Henry VI plays are perhaps the least-often produced of the whole canon - it's hard to get an audience to commit to three long nights - and even the Royal Shakespeare Company has only done the complete set (as opposed to condensing down to two or even one night) three times in the past fifty-or-so years.
This clearly isn't something for the casual theatregoer, but Shakespeare lovers will be drawn to the rare opportunity, particularly as it is part of director Michael Boyd's season of all eight Shakespeare history plays with the same company of actors.
The King is actually a relatively minor figure in the plays, which might better be called 'Events During the Reign of Henry VI', and which are essentially a study in the dangers of a political power vacuum.
Inheriting the throne as a baby, Henry is inevitably a weak king, with the power dissipated among his squabbling nobles, so there's no real support for the army in conquered France and Joan of Arc can lead the successful war to expel the English.
That takes up most of the first play. In the second, many of the rivals within Henry's court manage to kill each other off, leaving an even greater vacuum and encouraging the Duke of York to push his claim to the throne.
The ensuing civil war takes up much of Parts 2 and 3, with victory and the crown shifting back and forth several times. The York side finally wins, too late for the dead Duke, but making his eldest son Edward IV. But Edward's hunchback brother Richard is already scheming . . . .
The challenges for a director and actors are three - to hold our interest for more than nine hours, to keep the story and characters clear in our minds, and to individualise them enough that we get to know and care (positively or negatively) about at least some of them and their fates.
I doubt whether anybody could totally conquer the first problem, and there are inescapable low points and longeurs, particularly in the second play after most of the characters we got involved with in Part I have died and we haven't yet been drawn into the York story.
All I can say is that it pays to hang in there whenever things get dull, because they do always perk up soon.
Michael Boyd certainly makes inventive use of the temporary theatre built into the Roundhouse for this season. Without some of the silly excess of Richard II or Henry V, he gets actors climbing or dangling from ropes to generate the chaos of battle scenes, and he has messengers and other characters appearing from all over the auditorium.
He also borrows from his 2001 production of the trilogy the device of bringing dead characters back as ghosts to silently haunt the living at their moments of nemesis.
On the second point, keeping the story and characters clear, Boyd and his company are remarkably successful.
Even if you don't know your Suffolk from your Somerset, you'll always know who likes who, who hates who, and who is temporarily allied with who for reasons of his own, even when people start switching sides.
But it's on the third challenge - of making these characters come alive so we will love, hate, respect or disdain them - that any production succeeds or fails, and there are certainly far more successes than not among the key characterisations.
Allowed only a couple of passive appearances in the first play, Chuk Iwuji takes a long time to register as Henry and then, for my taste, plays him too naive and too sweet-hearted for too long.
It isn't really until the third play, after learning to assert himself and then rejecting that mode, that his Henry seems to earn the saintly aloofness that carries him to the end. His most touching moment comes as he almost silently witnesses the intimate and personal horrors of war for ordinary soldiers.
In the first play the strongest characterisations are those of Richard Cordery as the Duke of Gloucester, just one among many bickering nobles but the one with the greatest moral authority, and of Keith Bartlett as the warrior Talbot, the one unquestionably admirable figure in the whole play.
John Mackay's flamboyant Dauphin and Katy Stephens' bloodthirsty Joan are played as half-comic figures, rather dissipating their dramatic power (and this is surely the only piece of world literature in which Joan is the villain).
Cordery continues to dominate the first half of the second play until his character is killed, and eventually Clive Wood's York and Katy Stephens' Queen Margaret come to the fore.
Playing a similar role to his Bolingbroke in Richard II, Wood makes York a much more dynamic and active figure and thus draws us into his story. Stephens takes a while to differentiate Margaret from Joan, eventually letting us see that the Queen is a thinking and scheming villain, and not just an instinctive fighter.
And Patrice Naiambana gives the political manipulator Warwick the sexy macho energy and wit of a born matinee idol.
Other productions have been able to paper over this play's weaknesses by generating some comic relief out of the peasant rebellion led by Jack Cade, but neither director Boyd nor John Mackay as Cade is able to do much here.
Our involvement in the adventures of Wood's York, Stephens' Margaret and Naiambana's Warwick, along with the growth of Iwuji's Henry, helps make Part III the strongest and fastest-moving of the three plays, and as a bonus we get the arrival of the lad who is going to grow up to become Richard III.
Jonathan Slinger's Richard is impulsive, undisciplined, even a bit of a buffoon - certainly not everybody's idea of the hunchback - but he injects a lot of energy and danger into the proceedings, and his big soliloquy (a kind of first draft of 'Now is the winter of our discontent' and, I like to believe, the moment Shakespeare realised he had one more play in the cycle to write) is probably the best five minutes in the whole trilogy.
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Review - Hienry Vi - Young Vic 2001