When Michael Boyd’s production of the Henry VI trilogy played in Stratford two years ago, the opening image seized the audience by the throat from the off. A white-clad figure slowly descends the rusty staircase that serves as a backdrop to the whole octology, vomits bloodily and crawls into his grave. Now that we’ve seen Geoffrey Streatfeild’s progression as Henry V from green and salad beginnings to victory at Agincourt, we know this actor, and all the others who make up this amazing ensemble, a lot better.
A strength of taking Shakespeare’s histories as a totality, and casting as Boyd does, is the way images crop up again and again like musical motifs. Roger Watkins’ dying Mortimer in Henry VI Part 1, the last of a rebellious breed, recalls his John of Gaunt of Richard II while Geoffrey Freshwater’s conniving prelates in Henry V and Henry VI clang like the ever-present percussion and John Mackay’s flouncing Dauphins thread through the plays like a flying boy who never grows up.
Joan of Arc’s bag of animal bones echoes the later grisly package of human remains that Katy Stephen’s Queen Margaret hauls around with her in Richard III while Clive Wood’s usurpers (Bolingbroke and later York), prone to spelling out their right of ascendancy in striking visual terms, create a feeling of history moving forward in a tight spiral, constantly coming back to more or less the same place.
One visual motif that is perhaps over-used throughout the plays is the gore-daubed faces that represent battle’s crimson badge and maybe a sparing use of the blood bucket would be more effective. If there’s a degree of macho posturing in these war games, it reflects the vicious school playground England has become in the wake of Henry V’s demise. Bullies square up, alliances constantly change and there’s a childlike division between the loved and the hated.
There’s nothing tentative about Boyd’s direction, with gestures always carried through to the utmost. Flying characterises the production with soldiers on ladders and ropes, swinging, clambering and plummeting in all directions. Boyd recognises the vertical as well as the horizontal potential of the drama and, while we are always aware of the onward flow of historical events, every moment of the nine hours playing-time counts in itself.
The eight plays were first presented in Stratford as they were written but now, at the Roundhouse, the company is performing them in historically correct order. Experiencing the development of Shakespeare’s dramatic style transcends mere chronological ordering and there’s a slightly jarring effect of seeing the mature Henry V followed by this much earlier trilogy. It feels as though we’re being whirled back in time at the same time as events move forward.
That’s not to say that these plays, among the first Shakespeare wrote, lack theatrical brilliance. In Part 3 in particular, there is some fine dramatic structuring and imagery. King Henry (an appealing Chuk Iwuji) on the battlefield, philosophising astride a molehill while civil war is acted out before him, is a masterstroke. The episode of the Son Who Has Killed His Father and A Father Who Has Killed His Son, ingeniously realised by Boyd, perfectly encapsulates the tragedy.
Stunning theatricality, clarity and truthfulness, combined with the cohesion of an ensemble that has been together for two years, make this current run even more riveting than it was in Stratford. Despite the odd brief dip in inspiration, this eight-play project is among the finest achievements I’ve witnessed in three decades and a half of theatregoing and this trilogy sits at the peak. Seeing it in one day is a demanding but unforgettable experience.