Henry VI

Shakespeare's trilogy, Globe Theatre on Tour at the Oxford Playhouse.

September 11, 2013
Harry the Sixth, Thursday (mat.) and Saturday

A dark, claustrophobic production, crawling with intrigue and bad blood. The first of the three plays on offer this week (you can see all of them in sequence at the Playhouse on Saturday afternoon) is set in the early 15th century, when Henry VI, the child king, exists in the precarious eye of a storm of plots and battles. The history’s a bit hard to follow (not least because Shakespeare takes a fair few liberties with the facts), but one comes away with a clear sense of the disaster that war brings, and the horrible rapidity with which it can develop.

There’s some doubling of roles, and the actors tend to stay visible even when out of a scene, which works rather well to create the sense of the lack of privacy at court. Graham Butler is admirable in the title role as the young Henry – a silent, increasingly nervous presence centre stage throughout the whole first act: constantly in character but never distracting from the action. When he finally does speak, he convincingly creates a rather fey, hapless youth, painfully willing but equally painfully useless as a leader or manipulator of men.

The main interest of the play is carried by Beatriz Romilly as Joan of Arc. It’s a plum of a part, with more machismo than any other Shakespeare heroine, plus insanity. Romilly does it full justice, pathetic, alluring, inspiring and scary by turns, and shocking but admirably restrained (well this side of Bonham Carter) when it comes to the madness. 

The rest of the company provides excellent support to these big emotional roles: particularly Mike Grady, who brings a comic near-sympathy to the evil Bishop of Winchester, and Simon Harrison as the lovesick Dauphin. Garry Cooper as Gloucester, the protector, has a great dignity and the conflict between him and the Bishop is natural and believable.

It's definitely worth buying a programme: the doubling of roles makes it horribly easy briefly to confuse, for example, Richard Plantagenet and Talbots pere and fils, which, if you fall into that error as I did, does something fairly crucial to the plot. Shakespeare rather highhandedly compressed generations and combined a few multiple dukes here and there into single characters, and I'm still bewildered as to how Richard managed to be Edmund's nephew. 

There’s lovely ensemble part singing at various intervals, led by Mary Doherty (who also plays Margaret and about ten minor parts, as well as Fate): this works really well to punctuate certain scenes, and appears very well-rehearsed. The movement direction is also extremely tight: everything appears thoroughly and irreversibly choreographed, which serves to increase the feelings of tension and captivity which saturate the play.

This week offers a splendid chance to see a chronological series of all the Henry history plays: you could even see Creation’s marvellously silly Henry V at the Oxford Castle on Friday before heading over to the Playhouse on Saturday to see all three more serious Globe plays in one afternoon, for the very reasonable price of £50.

September 11, 2013

There’s no denying it: Shakespeare is intimidating. The archaic (if beautiful) language and the plots that send you scrabbling for your synopsis are standard. Good on the Globe on Tour, then, for making their production(s) of Henry VI fundamentally fun, thrilling, and accessible. More impressive still is that the fantastic company are this week putting on 3 Shakespeare plays, the trilogy of Henry VI- and even offering discounted tickets if you see every single one. At over seven hours of Shakespeare for just £50, you’ll get more iambs for your money than you’ll know what to do with.  

Again, though, don’t let the imposing scale put you off. I only saw the third play, The True Tragedy of the Duke of York, witnessing just the final acts of the Wars of the Roses, but I enjoyed every minute. You can slide easily into the plot, which has more double-crosses, impersonations, & betrayals than you can shake a severed head at.

This is a rollicking, fact-paced production, a constant stream of tragedy, comedy, swordfights, treachery, and murder. The play storms to a breakneck start with a tense throne-room stand-off between York and Lancaster, and never stops to let you catch your breath. This frantic pace owes a good deal to the play itself- the warring houses of York and Lancaster trade triumph and defeat quicker than blinking. The relentless beat of drums from the background, signalling impending battles and desperate sieges, helps this exciting atmosphere.

As the bodycount rises, remarkably realistic severed heads enliven the minimalist staging, and characters display their successive backstabs and double-crosses by smearing red or white paint across their faces, like medieval football hooligans. The cast is superb, adroitly handling a dizzying array of characters- an especial achievement considering they have to perform an entirely different play the next day.

Simon Harrison’s Richard of Gloucester was a particular delight, visibly evolving over the course of the evening from a simple sinister hunchback to a masterful, merry villain. His cheerful sociopathy was reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker, lightening the parade of murders with evil whimsy. After the Yorkists kill her son before her eyes, Margaret sobs “Kill me too.” The almost playful flourish as Richard draws his mace with the words “Marry, and shall!” was at once delightful and chilling. In one of Shakespeare’s earliest works, it’s fascinating to see the development of one of his most famous villains.

Mary Doherty’s Queen Margaret was a fitting foil, a proud, regal Amazon, clad in leather armour & punctuating her superb rage-filled speeches with a dagger. The contrast between the warlike Queen and her peace-loving husband, the erstwhile Henry, was excellent, and I felt alternately filled with compassion for, and earnestly desiring to strangle, Graham Butler’s monarch as he vacillated constantly. You’d get in a revolting mood yourself, if you had to be ruled by such a perfect, total wimp. See? It's bound to get you stirred up. This production is full of fun and thunder, a bloody good time.

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