Wars of The Roses: Henry VI
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by John Barton with Peter Hall (1963)
Directed by Trevor Nunn (2015)
The Rose Theatre, Kingston-on-Thames
Thursday 15th October 2015
SHORT VERSION OF CAST LIST (nearly everyone doubles, there is a very large ensemble)
Alex Waldmann as King Henry VI
Andrew Woodall as Duke of Gloucester, Lord Protector, Uncle of Henry VI
Rufus Hound as Duke of Bedford, Regent of France, Uncle to Henry VI
Geoff Leesley as Duke of Exeter, Great-uncle of Henry VI
Oliver Cotton as Bishop of Winchester, Great uncle of Henry VI
Alexander Hanson as Richard Plantagenet, later Duke of York
James Simmons as Lord Talbot, General of English army
Michael Xavier as Duke of Suffolk
Timothy Walker as Earl of Warwick (aka “Kingmaker”)
Owen Oakeshott as Duke of Somerset
Kare Conrad as Charles, the Dauphin
Robert Sheehan as Duke of Alençon
Jim Creighton as Duke of Burgundy
Joely Richardson as Margaret of Anjou, daughter of King of Naples
Imogen Daines as Joan of Arc
SEE ALSO “The Wars of The Roses – Overview” (LINKED)
Alex Waldmann as King Henry VI
The Wars of The Roses condenses Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays into two, and in the John Barton adaptation, Henry VI is mostly from part one. The original is believed to be an afterthought, written as a prequel for an audience keen on the amount if swordplay in parts II and III. It is often cited as Shakespeare’s weakest play, and I agree. It’s almost certainly collaborative whereas Parts II and III are not. It suffers from too many characters with actors dying, getting up and reappearing as another character before getting killed again. To paraphrase Monty Python, it is the one where you have to puzzle out whether Sussex betrayed Essex to Wessex, or whether Essex and Wessex are really plotting against Sussex with Middlesex. Anyway, Norfolk hates Suffolk who likes Sussex. In the Globe touring production, they had to colour code the nobles’ gowns so you could vaguely follow who was who.
Henry VI is Barton’s triumph. He tightened, explained, simplified so that the major nobles are all sharply delineated, and you no longer have to recall that one guy can be Henry, Beaufort, Winchester, Bishop or Cardinal, depending on who is speaking, let alone that Richard is also Plantagenet and Hereford but later York. Sixty characters were removed from the four plays, explanatory passages were written in Shakespearean style. They no longer switch first name, surname and title, but stick to one.
Watching Barton and Hall’s version, the veil is removed. For the first time, it is crystal clear who is Gloucester, the Lord Protector, who is the Duke of York, who is Warwick the Kingmaker, who is Talbot, the successful general, and who is Suffolk, scheming and seducing Margaret of Anjou to present to Henry as his wife.
Because it is the weakest of the four adapted plays perhaps, it has had most done to it, and emerges as the strongest of Barton’s three. It is a revelation for anyone who has groaned and shifted on their seat through Henry VI Part I. Yes, put simply, Barton and Hall’s Henry VI is a better play … Though Hall was quick to point out that Shakespeare didn’t write all of the original and that the bits they cut were often non-Shakespeare.
We have see Alex Waldmann many times, including four times in around a year, most recently as The Bastard in King John at the Globe. It is hard to compare, and his RSC As You Like It was easily the best version we have seen, but this Henry VI may even be his best performance, though we usually think that whenever we see him. He is shorter than we thought, accentuated by a very tall Duke of Suffolk (Michael Xavier) and Joely Richardson is tall and plays Margaret, the she-wolf of France. But his whole stance is meek, mild, passive, wet, accepting, with his soft boots making him look flat footed. This is a man who became king at nine months old, the country has been run by his powerful uncles, rivals, suspicious of each other. He does what he is told to. There is almost a Mr Bean aspect to the way he holds his face, uses his tongue outside of his mouth. He watches his uncle, his fixed victim smile on his face, trying to agree with everyone, desperate to please. So much does Waldmann inhabit the part that he remains totally in character for the bows at end, looking perplexed, unsure, insecure, fixed ‘please don’t hit me smile’ glued on his features. One result is that you cannot take your eyes off his reactions, and he gets laughs from his work in the background all the time. When Suffolk introduces Margaret as his future queen, he is surprised, thrilled, he had never really thought about that aspect of life at all. Margaret, clearly physically content because of Suffolk, instantly takes control of him. The nobles instinctively loathe her from the first.
L to R: Earl of Warwick (Timothy Walker), Margaret (kneeling, Joely Richardson), Henry VI (Alex Waldmann),Duke of Exeter (Geoff Leesley) Suffolk (Michael Xavier)
(I couldn’t swear whether this is from Henry VI or Edward IV)
The major part of the plot of Henry VI is the French Wars and Joan of Arc. Two of the four headliners come in here as Frenchmen, with Kare Conradi playing the Dauphin, and Robert Sheehan as the Duke of Alencon. Like Waldmann, Sheehan is a compelling actor, always noticeable from his reactions. You get the sense of stroppy mischief that he had in his TV role in Misfits – if you don’t know, it series one and two are great quirky TV. The Elizabethans of course thought of Joan of Arc as a witch, not a saint. Canonisation was 20th century. Barton added a sexual aspect between the Joan and Dauphin. In this one, they are surprised by the English army and run out dressed only in sheets.
They established a way of doing battles back in 1963. Dry ice, running across stage diagonally, strobe light slow motion sequences, and in the fifty years since the Wars of the Roses was first produced, it became a cliche. It is also an effective and economical cliche. Throughout the trilogy, sword fighting is athletic, fierce, well performed by everyone. There is a major contrast with the last few years. Fights here get their effect through skill and effort. There is no stage blood. After a few years of stages awash with gore, it is a relief and an improvement to do it in the 60s style.
We went out at two, one play down, both of us agreed on an unequivocal five stars.