“Henry VI” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Sunday 25th August 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

During the opening moment of Harry the Sixth, a lone woman (Mary Doherty) sings an ethereal funeral dirge. On Sunday, however, after the first few bars soared, one note slipped out of her grasp a few bars in. The day before, the company performed all three parts of Henry VI in the rain at Barnet (one of the battlefield locations in the plays), and now have to do it all again; six productions in thirty-six hours in adverse conditions leads to a few strained voices. The actors perform brilliantly given the circumstances, but this faltering seems to me to be representative of the productions as a whole, which have a lot of ambition and ooze with energy, but often fail to hit their marks.

Each part of the trilogy (here referred to as Harry the Sixth, The Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York respectively) has been cut down to around two-and-a-quarter hours, allowing director Nick Bagnall to get through fifty-one years of English history at an extraordinary pace. They are performed in the Globe’s familiar ‘period’ dress with two scaffold structures and a central towering throne remaining a constant throughout (Ti Green). Drums create tension throughout and simple costume changes allow the cast of fourteen to morph into the dozens of characters we meet along the way.

There really is something quite special about seeing these three plays performed in a single day, not least because to experience them in such a way kind of makes you think they may actually be better than everyone reckons they are. More than that however, we witness a semi-fictionalised narrative of our past which shows everything from popular rebellion and civil war to foreign wars and garbled diplomacy. Bagnall and David Hartley’s edits, too, seem to focus on one character in each part, moving from Henry to Richard of York to Richard of Gloucester in a way which feels like you’re watching a box set which focusses on a specific protagonist with each episode.

By moving from bold primary colours and broad gestures at the top of the trilogy to monochrome and intensity of emotion later on, Bagnall highlights the shift from relative harmony in the wake of Henry V’s death to the chaos which precedes Richard III’s reign. Silence becomes noise, peace becomes war and friend becomes foe. These highly political plays, however, feel pretty much stripped of politics, preferring a whitewashed and anodyne presentation of history over a more contentious one. Though we get Shakespeare’s ruminations on power and conflict, we get very little of the intrigue which makes these plays so perpetually fascinating. This is History with a capital “H”.

Many odd choices never really pay off. Joan of Arc is played by Beatriz Romilly with a thick northern accent, presumably to suggest some kind of down-to-earth-ness, but instead she comes across as a caricature who never has room to develop. End-stopping breaks up the otherwise breakneck rhythm. In some scenes, we get slow-motion fights; elsewhere full-blown duals. Theatrical rules set-up early on, like having actors not performing sat at the side of the stage, soon give way as the mechanics visible at the beginning inexplicably disappear. Rather than cementing the idea that this is a complex, contradictory period of English history, it comes across as shallow and rushed. Most disappointingly, very few of the performance manage any real engagement with the audience; something which is always crucial to the success of these plays. Rather than inviting us to join in a conversation in order to help them think through ideas, most actors look into the middle-distance and declaim without so much as a knowing look. Among this, then, Roger Evans’ Jack Cade and Brendan O’Hara’s Richard of York stand out, managing to imbue Shakespeare’s language with an ease of expression without losing its poetry, eyeballing individuals and bringing us on side to make us complicit in their actions.

The most interesting trajectory comes from Simon Harrison’s Richard of Gloucester, who creeps out of the shadows as a weak, snivelling wreck in Part Two before gaining momentum in Part Three as he readies himself for the massacre he is about to commit. The speech when he decides he will seize the crown by any means possible is one of the most charged of the day. In these productions, Doherty’s Queen Margaret is very much cast as the guiding force of the country during this time, as she manipulates her husband’s every move with her insatiable blood lust and thirst for power.

Behind her is Graham Butler’s Henry VI, who grows in stature and maturity as time elapses, initially removed from the action whilst dressed in blue before taking control in a red palette during Part Two and then reverting back to navy later on. Though young, Butler shows the growth and demise of a man with a sharp clarity.

Despite their exhaustion, the company pushes through right to the end, their energy sweeping us along with them as history moves inexorably on. But though we witness the plays themselves and the actors within them marching ever forwards, there is a lack of theatrical thrust over the course of the day. A few simple gestures simplify the arguments presented, whilst we yearn for some kind of argument to present itself. Like Henry himself, Bagnall’s productions sustain themselves well throughout the duration, but never quite assert themselves with enough force to become ‘great’.

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