The Henry VI trilogy is often dismissed as lesser-known Shakespeare and therefore less noteworthy work. However, many are taking this rare opportunity to see these rarely-performed plays. Sold-out performances are packed with Shakespeare enthusiasts, many having never seen any of the Henry VI plays performed. What a treat to be introduced or reintroduced into this era by such stunning productions.
The integrated dramatic sound and lighting effects, especially in Part 1, seem better coordinated and more exhilarating than the other histories, creating some truly exhilarating moments. One of the problems in seeing so many productions by the same company in close succession is the danger of repetition in stunts and effects. This said, those used in this trilogy feel fresher and more effective and original than in other productions in the cycle. The makeup is also particularly effective in this trilogy, with gruesomely severed arms, headless faces, eyes and tongues thrown across the stage, all enacted with grim realism. The cast shows once again their many talents with some very respectable Latin sung chants and some challenging and well-executed rope work.
I struggle a little with the character of Henry VI (Chuk Iwuji); he is not an unkind king, not one without passion, and not vain and reckless like others we have seen on this stage in the last few weeks of RII or, say, within the HIV plays, yet he remains dislikeable. Perhaps it is the contrast with the heroic, overtly masculine monarchs that have preceded him that make him seem a little cowardly. The crown is not something he thirsts for or kills for; rather, the crown conceives this King at nine months of age.
Joan La Pucelle (Katy Stephens)—Joan of Arc to you and me—is a fascinating character who steals the limelight for most of Parts 1 and 2. Stephens portrays her as womanly yet powerful, confident and witty, angry but not out of control, and as one who uses her sexuality to her advantage. She is yet another of Shakespeare’s fabulously strong and feisty female characters that stands up in interest and complexity to any of the male roles within the play.
Much of this play focuses on national difference, mainly mocking the French who are, in this play, a formidable force. This is a prevalent theme throughout, and Charles the Dauphin (John Mackay) and his dukes provide wonderfully frivolous material upon which the English may jest.
With the history plays being such male-dominated arenas, it is easy to assume that the wives who make brief appearances are then of little importance; indeed it would be easy for them to be acted in this way. However, just as Shakespeare writes them to be much more than this, so are characters such as Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester (Maureen Beattie), portrayed as such. These women are the backbone, the foundation of the men to whom they are married. We see Eleanor raise Gloucester’s (Richard Cordery) spirits, bolster his emotions, and most interestingly, present to be what seems—domestically or emotionally, at least—an entirely equal relationship. The relationships we see on this stage are refreshingly realistic and three-dimensional.
A truly awe-inspiring and theatrically impressive scene occurs during the witches’ conjuration of their premonitions. This stage offers a surreal moment of theatre with chanting, rope suspension, thunderous sounds, and the ghosts of Talbot and his son who appear from below the stage, bursting out from a pit of bright light, and then dragged and suspended in the air by ropes. Now that’s what I call thrilling theatre.
Richard Plantagenet’s (Clive Wood) speech to explain in detail the complex lineage that proves the legitimacy of his claim to the throne is well- conceived. Wood’s use of pebbles to lay out a family tree makes what could have been a flat and confusing five minutes a very clear and helpful clarification of the lineage surrounding the throne.
The Cardinal’s death scene is finely acted by Geoffrey Freshwater. The dramatic and nightmarish depiction continues the visual horror of this trilogy. The bloody face of Gloucester’s ghost (Richard Cordery) haunts the Cardinal in his last moments, ripping him from his deathbed, dragging him (with yet more rope work) kicking and screaming up into the sky and to his death. Death and brutality are indeed the prevalent theme of the Henry VI plays. At the drowning of the Duke of Suffolk (Geoffrey Streatfeild), there are more ghosts on stage than the living.
As if all of this wasn’t chaotic enough, then total madness ensues. Jack Cade, the rebellious and carnival-like threat to the crown, overtakes the stage. Not only do these clowning scenes bring some welcome humour, but they involve more well-received impromptu audience participation. One poor man is pulled from the audience only to nearly have his head chopped off! Fish-headed humans, butchers and ghosts run havoc on stage, most disturbing of all being the beheaded, re-animated body of Suffolk, which is paraded around the stage, hilariously but also remarkably well done. After all this, the final demise of the working-man rebel, Jack Cade (John Mackay) is very comically executed. It is, in fact, a very Shakespearean comedic death, as always, prolonged by repeated verbal confirmation of his death. It is humorous and refreshing for this Shakespearean trait to be mocked a little.
The future Richard III (Jonathan Slinger) gives hints even in Part 3 of his anger and formidable nature. Despite his disability—or perhaps because of it—he is bitter, divisive and full of angry determination, which paints a dangerous future. Slinger’s portrayal is captivating and unnerving all at once. Also entrancing is Queen Margaret’s (Katy Stephen) dominant stage presence. A character with easily as much grit as Lady Macbeth, she is a loud and threatening presence in each of her scenes, unafraid of her male enemies and angered by the limitations of being a woman in her society.
Fantastic costumes, realistically gory makeup, subtly-enhancing music, and gruesome, dismembered body parts strewn across the stage, the most notable aspect of this bloody trilogy is the fantastic back-of-stage efforts that support a dazzling cast, showcasing the many exciting qualities of these much-underrated plays.