Michael Boyd’s magnificent production of Shakespeare’s early trilogy finds the RSC on as good form as I have seen them in the last 30 years. This marathon undertaking is endlessly inventive, beautifully performed and wonderfully theatrical.
The RSC has a great tradition of performing these plays, from Peter Hall’s Wars of the Roses cycle in the 60s, through Terry Hands’ trilogy in the late 70s, The Plantagenets in the 80s and Michael Boyd’s presentation of the current production in 2001.
As a central part of this year’s Complete Works Festival, this is a great showcase for the talents of the company and the ideal choice to open the new Courtyard Theatre. Modelled on an Elizabethan playhouse, and with the whole audience in close proximity to the stage, the Courtyard is an appropriate space for this very physical production. It will serve as the RSC’s temporary home while the Royal Shakespeare Theatre undergoes extensive redesign.
These are among the first plays that Shakespeare wrote and there are flaws in the dramaturgy. At times, there’s a lack of variety, with little light relief. They can seem like an endless string of scenes with people shouting and stabbing each other to death. The playwright didn’t shy away from the horrors and complexities of the politics that shaped medieval England and there is a good deal of plotting and counter-plotting to keep up with.
Part 1 describes the wars with France led by the witch/saint Joan of Arc. The production is astonishing in its theatricality. Soldiers drop from above, swing out over the audience and burst up through the floor. The body count is high and the wounding and killing is shown in graphic detail. Joan waves Bedford’s dripping arm from on high and threatens to cover the front row with blood, of which there is copious amounts shed over the course of the three plays. The basis for the conflict that will turn into civil war in Part 3 is set up here, with the iconic scene of Yorkists and Lancastrians choosing between white and red roses.
With the French wars over and Joan burned at the stake, Part 2 sees the factious nobles jockeying for position. The Jack Cade rebellion follows and I found these scenes a little dissatisfying. The production seems to veer in a different direction and it struck me as a little too crowd-pleasing. The rebellious mob is presented as asylum inmates and ghosts and there’s even some audience participation. It may make a comment about the madness of anarchy and serve to lift the audience just over halfway through the epic but the change of style jarred a bit.
Part 3 sees the furtherance of the house of York. Much of the plot of Richard III, which Shakespeare was to write a short while later, is initiated here. The Wars of the Roses may have finished by the end of the trilogy but we know there is much bloodshed still to come. We are left with a blood-soaked stage on which yet more atrocities will be enacted when Richard III joins the Henry plays early next year.
There is some extraordinary acting from a tremendous company of actors. Katy Stephens as Joan/Margaret, Richard Cordery as Gloucester, Clive Wood as York, Geoffrey Streatfeild as Suffolk, John Mackay as The Dauphin/Cade, Jonathan Slinger as Richard of Gloucester and Chuk Iwuji as the King all stand out but it’s ultimately the ensemble that triumphs.
For those with the stamina, the company is presenting all three plays in one day a number of times during the season. It’s an extraordinary way to see them but be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted. To sit down at 10.30am and leave at 11pm is a big commitment, nine hours of theatre over a twelve and half hour period. However you see it, on one day or spread over a number of evenings, Henry VI is as gripping a piece of theatre as you’re ever likely to see and you may find yourself under its spell for some time afterwards.