Henry VI: Three Plays
Directed by Nick Bagnall
Globe Theatre Production on Tour
Bath Theatre Royal
Saturday September 27th 2013
Three plays in a day. Well, Tantalus was ten in a day, but they were all short, about an hour each, and the leg room in Milton Keynes where we saw it was generous. The cramped Theatre Royal is a more daunting prospect. No doubt the performances the Globe on Tour did on battlefield sites at Towton and Barnet were even less comfortable.
I was chatting to some friends who see a lot of Shakespeare and they said they liked the histories best of all. I was stunned. I’ve spent years avoiding them except for Richard III. I never liked the Wars of the Roses combination. All those dukes and earls with English county names … Gloucesters, Kents, Warwicks, Suffolks, Somersets, Bedfords, Rutlands, let alone towns … Lancaster, Exeter, Winchester, Salisbury, Lancaster, Oxford, York. Then add Alecon, Orleans, Anjou, Burgundy, Rouen, Bordeaux. Plus they might be called by family names in the script: Neville, Beaufort, Mortimer, Clifford, Grey, Woodville, or by first names … Humphrey, George, Richard, Edward, Ned, Edmund, Henry, or perhaps the Earl of March or the Marquess of Montague, or just by rank: Prince, King, Duke, Earl, Marquess, Lord, Duchess, Lady, Queen, Bishop, Cardinal. And these are dynasties. So the 13th Earl of Warwick in Part 1 is not the 16th Earl of Warwick in parts two and three. You need several family trees just to work out who’s fighting who, let alone why. I never had the patience for this muddled bit of English history. Apparently Shakespeare faked the red rose of Lancaster too … there was a white rose of York, but no red rose before Henry VII invented the Tudor rose combination.
But we’ve booked Henry V in the Grandage season for next month, and two out of the three RSC Shakespeares next year are Henry IV Pts 1 and 2. So in for a penny, in for a pound, we decided to go for all three Henry VI’s in a day, a rare opportunity. The Globe have reverted to the first published names, and they were never a trilogy. They were a set of two, plus an add on.
HARRY THE SIXTH, 12.30 pm
(Henry VI Part 1)
Put aside the arguments over whether it was the first of the series or a later prequel. According to Wiki, it’s considered one of the weakest plays. It is. It’s not even a play to me, but a series of disjointed fights.
The set is flexible … two steel towers with ladders flank steps leading to a throne. The cast stay on most of the time, or change behind the throne, switching tabards or robes in view. The periphery has an array of drums, gongs, cymbals. Drums are used right through the three plays. They’re used to punctuate the balletic sword fights, but also dully, with low thumps as atmosphere. A smoky haze hovers above the towers.
As a new postgrad, I was interviewed by the BBC. I wanted to get into music radio production. They asked me which Shakespeare plays I knew best, then asked me to describe how I would produce Richard III for a wireless (I’m sure they said ‘wireless’) production. I asked if they meant extracts. No, the whole play. I said I wouldn’t, I’d just put on an LP with the Argo full cast recording as it was pointless to do it again. No one laughed. Then I explained that I thought Shakespeare unsuitable for radio because you cannot follow what’s happening with 24 or 25 voices with no visuals. The interviewer said, ‘But everyone already knows the story and who the characters are.’ I realized that we moved in different social circles.
24 or 25 roles is an issue. I’ll guess that fifteen actors played forty to fifty roles in Harry the Sixth, and no I’m not going to open the play text and count. In comparison, Richard III is a model of linearity, clear plotting and clear character differentiation. To complicate further, Mary Doherty (later Queen Margaret) played several minor roles, some of them male, all while clad in a red dress. She was also used as the person “escorting those who have died off stage,” just as the porter did in the last RSC Macbeth. The French / English differentiation was the easy bit, simply switching tabards on stage. I liked the fact that every English tabard bore the same coat of arms, but all different sizes, lengths, hues and arrangements of lions and fleur du lys: there was no mass production in the 15th century!
There is no leavening with humour. They tried with a camp Duke of Orleans but it’s minimal.
Joan of Arc has more action than the guy the play’s named after. It’s the English interpretation: she was a witch. She wasn’t canonized until 1920 (three years before Shaw’s play Saint Joan) so to an Elizabethan audience, she was a baddie. She was given a Northern English accent to separate her from the French nobility’s RP English. I would have said ‘the English regional accent you’re happiest with’ to the actor. Throughout the three plays various people have Northern accents for no particular reason: Talbot, Richard of Gloucester later.
Henry VI, in blue, right can only look on
The best thing was Graham Butler’s Henry VI, omnipresent on his throne for a full fifty minutes, nervously observing the action before he ever spoke a line.
THE HOUSES OF YORK & LANCASTER,
(Henry VI Part 2)
Part 2 is the best play intrinsically and the original title The Houses of York and Lancaster is more apposite too. You can do angry plotters on stage rather better than pitched battles, and in the first half there is little doubling up, and the costumes are clearly colour coded. e.g. Warwick is the only one in green. That single actor identification breaks down in part two, as they’ve killed so many in part one: Gloucester, the Duchess of Gloucester, Suffolk and the Cardinal Bishop of Winchester have all met their maker in stylised and bloodless slaughter. With so many costume changes, stage blood would be impossible. In part two, Garry Cooper who had played Gloucester gets killed four times (as different people) within about ten minutes before he emerges as Old Clifford, who will get killed in his turn
On coloured robes, there are things going on with Henry VI and Queen Margaret. At times they are in identical red, sitting on the throne together, mixing in to each other. Then at others, Richard is back in his blue robes from the first play. This must indicate their relationship or lack of it. It’s visually irritating when Queen Margaret gets done up in male armour, because having one dress on stage made a change.
Throughout the day, we have an understudy, but rather an interesting one. Director Nick Bagnall has had to step into the breach as The Duke of Suffolk, a major role as he is Queen Margaret’s sponsor and ‘friend.’ Actually, we never noticed the join in Harry The Sixth nor in this play until after the death of Gloucester, when Mr Bagnall had to carry a script. He didn’t so much read as quickly check, and it looked like folded pieces of paper, not a book. In fact he positioned himself next to other actors in such a way that he read in surreptitiously better than anyone else I have seen. In the second half he plays Jack Cade, and got spontaneous applause at the start. When Cade died he lost the script, someone had to kick it back to him, and they had to redo a bit which got a friendly laugh and applause again. I think he 95% knew it, and all the physical moves looked spot on. And he was very, very good.
The Cade rebellion starts the second half, and it’s a change to see some peasant clothes after too many shiny polyester robes, and it’s funny too as welcome relief. The line “Kill all the lawyers!’ got major applause (is it in the original?) Richard Plantaganet is an outstanding performance as he comes to the forefront and gains power throughout the play.
Henry’s full length faint when the action got too heavy for him was masterly and unexpected.
THE TRUE TRAGEDY OF THE DUKE OF YORK,
(Henry VI Part 3)
This third play shows once and for all why the history of kings and princes should be subservient to social history along the lines of Fernand Braudel’s work on the period. The programme notes say, “The civil wars comprised some ten battles between 1455 and 1471, each only a few hours long, none except Townton with a long casualty list.” It’s a view I’ve long held, and to 95% of the population it mattered not a jot whether York or Lancaster was in ascendancy, nor whether Henry VI, Edward IV or Richard III was king … except Richard III was said to be a better administrator. The Hundred Years War in France had a far greater impact on most people (and we are in the tail end of that in the first play), but the Wars of The Roses are dwarfed in importance by the Black Death a century earlier, and dukes and princes had nothing to do with that. Part three focusses on all those interminable squabbles, changed allegiances and killings. It’s inexorable and in spite of great acting and a fabulous production, frankly a tedious story.
That’s why the cameo of King Lewis XI of France, played by Brendan O’Hea, who was also Richard Plantaganet brought the house down and had us crying with laughter. Great comic acting with an ‘allo ‘allo acent, in contrast to the ferocity of his Plantaganet, ably assisted by the sister, Lady Bona, played in drag but without a wig or a shave. This sort of light relief is vital to Shakespeare whether it be Macbeth’s porter, or Hamlet’s gravedigger. It is so missed in the Henry VI plays, and this was shoehorned in perhaps, but still the best thing of the evening, no, best thing of the entire day by a mile.
Richard of Gloucester (Simon Harrison) shows why a different folio numberer back in 1623, when the plays were retitled, could have decided on calling it Richard III Part 1 instead of Henry VI Part III. It was already named after his dad Richard Duke of York, in its first version, but he is dead by halfway through. The trouble with Wars of The Roses combinations which add Richard III is the unremitting evil of Richard in this one takes away any hint of enigma from the play, Richard III (or what might have been Richard III Part 2!) Harrison goes to town, tied and withered arm, crookback and two legs of different sizes so he lurches about. He is so disabled that his feats of valour in the field seem unlikely, but let’s not investigate too far … for some of it the real Richard would have been in his teens. He lurches around with a spiked club bashing the steel set whenever trouble breaks out, and lopes around the set like a demented ape. The northern accent was odd: his dad, and three brothers don’t have one. He might have been “Richard of York” but that doesn’t mean he needs to do Eee, bah, gum. It’s why not? But also why?
The red versus white face warpaint appeared in Part 2, but was universal in Part 3, and at one level, we were grateful for marking which side people were on, usefully indicating changes of side too (much easier from white to red than vice versa!) On the other, football fan face paint jobs have become such a cliché in 2010s Shakespeare conflicts that I’m getting fed up with it. But some of the doubling is SO confusing that the red and white warpaint is essential. Joe Jameson has to get killed as the Yorkist Duke of Rutland (son of Richard Plantaganet), and emerge immediately as the Lancastrian Prince Edward of Wales (son of Henry VI). They must have been removing and applying face paint behind the set at production line speed.
It got a 20% standing ovation, and any standing at all at Bath is rare, and the energy, direction, acting and production deserved it. Personally, I can’t see myself wanting to see the Henry VI plays again. All three are inferior Shakespeare to me, I can’t say I like any of the plays, and the first part is, as some critics suggest, about the weakest play he wrote. The history is dull, there’s too much of it, especially beheadings, and all the aristocrats are nasty bastards so I can’t care much which one is winning. My earlier feeling that I’d rather avoid the histories (except Richard III) was confirmed. Funny. The histories are what established Shakespeare’s popularity.
The best thing about it is the portrayal of Henry as a weak, vacillating king, thus letting the nobles run amok. Graham Butler is superb right through the three plays, often watching the action
Publicity called it “The original Game of Thrones” a clever line. The Edward IV / Lady Grey marriage is also “the original The White Queen” if you want to feed off popular TV series. It could have done with a touch of Game of Thrones action too.
Globe. Three pounds. Superb in every aspect … history, production history, context, synopses, timelines, family trees. Except on the family trees, characters in the plays are light brown text, everyone else black text. They should have reversed it.
Astonishing. First play of the day. We were next to the centre seats, front row, dress circle, so stage level just about. Half way through the man next to me dropped his plastic beer glass on the carpet (why do they allow drinks in?) and pushed past around fifteen people in the tight space to get out. Several had to stand. We lost Mortimer’s explanation of Richard Plantaganet’s claim to the throne entirely. Well, we all need a pee sometimes. But then ten minutes later, he pushed his way back along the entire row, people had to stand again, to regain his seat next to me. Reeking of tobacco smoke. He had been out for a cigarette and had decided not to watch from the back (lots of empty seats) but push past everyone. He then proceeded to leaf through his programme looking for something to read until half time. Fortunately they didn’t return after the interval, nor were they in the other plays. But why spend fifty quid on two premium seats and do that? And why did the theatre let him do it? Anywhere else you would wait at the back to the interval.