Last April I decided to set myself a challenge: watch 30 plays in 30 days and add a review to this blog within the following 24 hours. It was all meant to help keep a small flag flying for the theatre industry and promote that relatively new-fangled idea online theatre. And, at the time, it was all supposed to end within the month’s span. But then somehow it didn’t ….. and I thought I’d make it 50 plays in 50 days, except it didn’t end then either and so …I’ve now reached 300 days and considerably more than 300 plays (381 to be exact). I know from feedback that companies, venues and individuals within the industry have found a lot of what has been written of assistance to them in spreading the word about what they are up to and I have to say it’s helped my sanity having a target to meet every day. I thought I’d better mark this latest occasion with something substantial and what could be more of a challenge then Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy?
For this I turned to the Globe Theatre, partly because they had archived all three parts with a consistent cast and partly because, somehow, I’d managed to neglect the venue in the preceding 299 days. Actually, I was slightly stymied in this because the production was not at the Globe itself. In summer 2013 the theatre had the novel idea of playing the whole trilogy at various battlefield sites from the Wars Of the Roses which the plays chronicle. Having been to Towton, Tewkesbury and St. Albans their last stop was at Hadley Wood Common in Barnet, on the northern outskirts of London. This original Game Of Thrones was played out through one whole day under the direction of Nick Bagnall who somehow managed to wrestle this dramatic behemoth about 50 years of history into a shape that was both digestible and palatable, that told a coherent story and that fully focused on the conflict which eventually finished off the Plantagenets and propelled the Tudors onto the throne.…. and all this with a cast of just 14 actors.
At the centre of the action is the doomed king himself reliant on his uncles, his nobility, his wife and even his own son to make his decisions. As played by Graham Butler he is a restless figure perpetually twisting and twining his fingers around each other and marginalising himself from the action the better to commentate upon it and bemoan his fate. At the end he is allowed to reclaim some of his dignity, much in the same vein as Richard II, but it is too little too late. It is a solid central performance and Butler is the only member of the team who stays with the one character. The remaining thirteen actors play the other numerous roles and have to employ all their skills to differentiate them. This leads to some unexpected choices such as Brendan O’Hea’s steely Richard Plantagenet morphing into an outrageously camp King of France.
Bagnall’s doubling, trebling and even quadrupling decisions lead to some knowing moments. Roger Evans in Part Two has no sooner been executed as the Duke of Suffolk when he is back on stage picking up his own severed head. Here he is the rebel Jack Cade who forms one of a string of characters throughout the trilogy which give it depth and range and are, ultimately more interesting than the titular monarch. In Part One this role falls to Beatriz Romilly as a ballsy Joan Of Arc; Mary Doherty plays an even ballsier Queen Margaret the so called “she wolf of France” who takes over when husband Henry proves inadequate. Meanwhile Part Three is pretty much dominated by Richard, Duke of Gloucester (eventually Richard III) played with relish by Simon Harrison; it is just a shame that we don’t get to follow his interpretation of the character any further. His delivery of the longest soliloquy in Shakespeare is extremely well done and no mean feat coming towards the end of a very long day.
Talking of superlatives, there are more battles in Henry VI than anywhere else in the canon (four onstage and one reported) and the production has to come up with some inventive touches especially with a numerically limited cast. It helps that the stage design (Ti Green) encompasses different levels, and the scaffolding can be used for any amount of clashing and clanging. A constant underscore of drums orchestrated by Alex Baranowski and played by just about all the actors at various points also keeps the tension bubbling. Visually there are some striking moments too. The coffin of Henry V at the start of the play is covered with red and white roses and this becomes the source of the badges of honour the two sides pick. Later red and white war paint is used so that the audience has a simple way of keeping track as to who are Lancastrians, who are Yorkists and who keeps changing sides.
I’m not sure the acoustic properties of the venue were all that conducive as there did seem to quite a bit of over projection in the early stages; indeed, I feared for the actors’ voices with the long day ahead. It was amazing that the production manages to keep up the energy level it does and in the curtain call the cast looked pretty exhausted. Not surprising as, unfortunately for them, the whole thing had to be played in the rain (sometimes torrential) which must have weighed down some of the heavier costumes and caused health and safety worries when the sword fighting started. Originally played in mid-August they really couldn’t have been unluckier with the weather but, then again, this was a tale about England so …..
Henry VI (Parts 1, 2 & 3) is available on the Globe Theatre website – click here
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