Henry VI part 1 – February 2007


By: WIlliam Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 9th February 2007

I’d forgotten so much about these plays, and this production, that I felt I was watching these for the first time tonight, until I recognised some of the things that I hadn’t enjoyed so much first time round. Firstly, the music. I liked it most of the time, but occasionally it continued to drone on over and behind the dialogue, making it harder to hear what was going on. The smoke machine was fully warmed up by the end of the evening as well, as everything from wisps of mist to full-on fog rolled out of various apertures throughout the performance. I remember being practically choked by the fog at the start of Richard III many years ago – fortunately, this wasn’t so bad.

I also recognised many of the actors who performed tonight, including Keith Bartlett as Talbot, who presumably remembered a lot of his lines from playing the part last time round. Jonathan Slinger, who’s playing Richard III later in the cycle, was preparing us for that role with a bit of limp and the suggestion of a shoulder, as he played the Bastard of Orleans – an unfortunate name, I always feel. Clive Wood, as Richard, Duke of York, also hinted as his son’s deformity during the scene with Joan of Arc, by adopting the crookback and grimacing – both nice touches. I shall watch for more hints during the next two plays, when Richard of Gloucester makes his appearance.

The set we saw during the Two Gents production (many moons ago now) was indeed the Henrys set – very industrial looking, with a large spiral staircase encased in a metal tube centrally placed towards the back of the stage. It allowed for a balcony, and the two big doors at the bottom were regularly thrown open and clanged shut to set scenes for us. One staging that was repeated through this play, and, I suspect, the others, was to have a phalanx of people standing in the doorway, with lights behind throwing them into silhouette, giving an impression of a mass of people. They entered slowly, demonstrating the power of the particular group, and in the case of Henry VI’s coronation in France, this emphasised the bitter discord amongst the English nobility, as the group breaks apart suddenly and descends instantly into vicious bickering. Poor Henry, young as he is, does all he can to broker a peace deal, but only ends up making things worse. Firstly, he picks one of the faction’s symbols to try to encourage both sides to overlook their differences – a tricky manoeuvre at the best of times – and then he expects two enemies to work together to further England’s interests in France, without staying to keep an eye on things himself. It’s an excellent portrayal of how a weak ruler can make problems worse rather than better. Reminds me of last night’s King of Hearts, where the Prime Minister understood the need to have a hated right-hand woman, someone who could get tough on dissenting voices within his own party – Henry could have done with one of those.

The Joan of Arc storyline is always a little disappointing from my point of view, but I can understand why Shakespeare wrote it as he did, especially given the nature of the religious troubles at the time. He couldn’t very well have portrayed a French Catholic heroine in his plays – the public, and very probably the Lord Chamberlain, might not have appreciated it. Still, I do find it difficult to accept this version of her story, and tonight that was made worse by the warfare element. I accept that this is exactly what Shakespeare’s writing about, but perhaps our recent and current involvement in war is making me less willing to enjoy representations of the “glory” of war on stage. Talbot is an heroic character, true, and does represent many good virtues – loyalty, unselfish service to his King and country, heroism in battle, etc. – but it’s hard at the moment to be enthralled by battle stories, winning or losing.

The political element is much easier to take, although I was finding it hard to hear the lines tonight – one of the problems of a large thrust stage with so many characters milling about. Geoffrey Freshwater is playing a wonderfully villainous Bishop/Cardinal, whose feud with the Lord Protector will, I fear, end in tears for all concerned. The Lord Protector may be less at fault, but he’s not very effective at controlling the malicious cleric. In fact, he’s not much cop at controlling anything. He sets up a perfectly good match for the King, only to have it overturned once Suffolk seduces Henry with his descriptions of Margaret, daughter of the King of Naples and Suffolk‘s intended mistress. Margaret, doubled with Joan, is a saucy temptress. Looking like a 40s vamp, she’ll be more than a match for most of these men.

I liked the three women who played Joan’s “fiends”. They wore simple red dresses, and emitted strange, low humming sounds, with some crooning noises, which were disturbing and beautiful at the same time. They also joined in the fighting, lining up behind Joan and following her movements as she fenced with first the King and then Talbot, indicating the extra strength she received from them. They also assisted in “persuading” the Duke of Burgundy to re-enlist with the French forces.

There was copious use of ladders, trap doors, and a lowered platform to create different spaces. Sometimes I feel this goes too far, and distracts from the performances. For example, when Talbot’s men swing in from the sides of the gallery, they pair up, hanging over the middle of the stage, and to keep them together, one attaches his line to the other’s, so they can point their weapons. It looks really clumsy. Then, to release themselves, they have to unclip the lines and swing back again – all fine from a health and safety point of view, but not much cop from a dramatic perspective.

Chuk Iwuji was good as Henry, all youth and innocence, coupled with good intentions. I enjoyed seeing John Mackay again. He played Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the last Twelfth Night, and made him both comic and sympathetic. Here he’s the Dauphin, and it’s clear this Dauphin is anything but in charge in France. Much like Henry in England, in fact – they’re well matched in a strange way.

Our seats were fine, and very comfortable – which is just as well, as we’re in the same ones for all four productions! Roll on the rest of the cycle.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me