Richard III – February 2007

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 10th February 2007

Coming at the end of a long day’s play watching, it’s not too surprising that I felt a bit overdone by the end of the evening. I did enjoy this production, however, although my mind wasn’t as sharp as it might have been.

I don’t need to go through the story for this one. There were a few edits that I noticed, specifically the reference to time when Buckingham is asking Richard for his promised reward. On the whole, though, this seemed a fairly complete reading, and carried on where the Henry VIs had left off.

This play is much more about the political manoeuvring between the various factions and Richard’s manipulation of everyone, with the battle being saved for the final scenes. As a result, it seemed calmer than the prequels, though there’s still a lot of action. Richard does bustle about in his efforts to get the throne, and Jonathan Slinger reflected that in his performance. It’s always interesting to see how much Richard is in command and how much he’s winging it. Here I would say he’s more of a brash gambler, making his play and putting heart and soul into it. If it doesn’t come off, too bad, but he’ll do everything he can to make it happen.

The wooing of Anne was successful, as usual, but I wasn’t fully convinced he’d pulled it off. Richard’s manner rarely changed; he was much the same throughout the play, so there was less light and shade than I’m used to (or should that be shade and darkness). I felt the humour was being worked at a little too hard at times, though it was all still enjoyable. The build up to this play through the previous two was excellent, and so his character was already developed from the off.

Mad Margaret, played by Katy Stephens, was the best I’ve seen, all fire and venom. Her character had become more bitter through her experiences, and she could still talk. Which is just as well, because that’s what her character’s there for – to tell all the others just how bad things are, how much worse they’re going to get, and how much she hates them all.

For this play, they were using modern weapons and we heard helicopters overhead. It can be a little awkward doing this when there are so many references to swords, but I felt they handled it very well. The scene where Richard is pretending to the Mayor of London that he’s under attack was staged with him and Buckingham besieged behind an overturned table, looking like there was a house to house gun battle raging. They convinced the Mayor enough to make him nervous too, although as he probably grasped something of the political situation he was getting involved in, he’d have been nervous anyway.

That’s all I can remember now, after a long gap. I made a cryptic note about the murders and the execution of the second murderer, but that will have to wait till we see them again next February. Hopefully it will all make sense then. I also remember that the ghosts before the battle were well done, but don’t recall the detail.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry VI part 3 – February 2007

6/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 10th February 2007

The civil war is now well under way, and poor Henry is going to be in and out of captivity a number of times during the period of this play. Actually, you could argue that he’s never out of captivity by this time, as both sides treat him as little more than a pawn, including his own people. We get straight into the action, with the Yorkists taking control of the parliament building, and setting Richard, Duke of York, on the throne. This is also our first sight of his son, Richard, of whom more later.

Henry turns up, with his backers, and they’re all riled up at York’s effrontery. Henry, however, is as peace-loving as ever – don’t you just want to give him a good slap? Basically the two sides have a slanging match, and even Henry says some strong words. He tries to argue his right, but York’s points cause one of Henry’s supporters to change sides, which leads Henry to waver (not that it takes much to do that). He offers a compromise – let him reign as King for his lifetime and the crown will then pass to York and his heirs. Sounds good, doesn’t it, but Henry has a son, and, more importantly, a wife, who will not take this lying down. There certainly will be trouble ahead. Sit back and enjoy.

Sure enough, immediately after York and his followers leave, the Queen turns up, with their son, and gives Henry an earful. Boy, can she talk. She’s along the same lines as Lady Macbeth, but much more talkative, and nothing like so successful at getting her husband to do his manly duty. So she heads off to get her army and start sorting out the mess her husband has got her into. (If you want a job done properly…)

Meanwhile, up in Yorkshire, York’s sons, especially young Richard (what a little scamp!), have persuaded their father to claim his crown now, not wait till Henry dies. Just at that moment, the Queen turns up with her army and besieges them. Battle ensues, and little Rutland, York’s youngest, is caught by the Queen’s troops and slain, along with his tutor. It’s a pitiable sight, but his slayer, Clifford, has already lost his father in the fighting, and has no compunction in killing a child. We get to see the depths people sink to when civil war rampages through a country, and, sadly, there are all too many modern counterparts around.

York himself is caught by the Queen, and put through worse abuse than being killed. They mock him as a pretend king, standing him on a molehill, and telling him about the loss of Rutland. The Queen even has a napkin, soaked in Rutland’s blood, which she gives him. She puts a paper crown on his head, and continues to mock him while he suffers. Fortunately, she allows him time to speak before they kill him, which has one great benefit – it gives Shakespeare an opportunity to write York some fine vitriolic lines to balance hers. It’s a wonderfully emotional speech, and this performance was very moving. Then they kill him.

Next we see Edward and Richard as they wonder what’s happened to their father. As they talk, the sun is rising, and they apparently see three suns. Taking this as a good omen, Edward vows to show three suns on his shield. Warwick joins them, and there’s a lot of military verbalising (boys will be boys), until the messenger tells them the Queen’s army is nearby again, and they head off for another battle. This would almost be boring if it wasn’t for the marvellous language and the way this production gets the last scrap of humour out of it.

Again, there’s a long slanging match between the two armies, and another battle, with Richard showing himself a willing fighter. In the midst of all this, what’s King Henry doing? Why, he’s sitting in the middle of a field, ruminating, as you do, thinking how nice it would be to be an ordinary man, no royal responsibilities, just a simple life. As he sits there, a young man enters with a dead body – it’s someone he’s killed in the battle. As he checks the body for plunder, he realises he’s killed his own father, and is stricken with remorse. Then they flip round, and turn into an old man who’s slain a young one. The same revelation follows, only this time the man has killed his own son. King Henry observes all this and is quick to empathise with these men’s losses. Even so, he considers himself worse off than them. (I don’t agree – after all, it’s his wishy-washiness that’s partly caused all these killings, so suck it up!)

A dying Clifford is left on the battlefield after the rest of the Queen’s troops have fled, and Edward and his followers spare him nothing in revenge for the death of York. Fortunately for Clifford, he’s already dead before they get going, so he’s well out of it. Now Warwick decides to go to France, to ask the French King for his sister’s hand for Edward. Richard is given the Dukedom of Gloucester, and George that of Clarence, but Richard asks to change, as Gloucester is “too ominous”. Edward doesn’t take him seriously (silly boy).

King Henry, having escaped to Scotland with his wife, decides to revisit his own country, and gets captured by a couple of game keepers. This leads to an interesting exchange on allegiance, as the keepers were originally Henry’s sworn subjects, and he’s not dead, yet now they’re Edward’s loyal subjects. Fortunately, Henry’s a pretty cooperative chap, so he goes along with them to prison. Back in London, Edward, now King Edward, is dealing with the granting of favours. One Lady Grey, whose husband died fighting for the Yorkists, has come to ask for her husband’s lands to be restored to her. Edward is so taken with her, he gives her half of England! He woos her, overcomes her resistance, marries her, and all without letting Warwick know about this change of plans. (I see more trouble ahead.)

It’s at this time that we get the first taste of Richard’s lust for power. Just after Edward’s asked his brothers what they think of his choice of Lady Grey as his Queen, Richard is left alone on stage to tell us all about his ambitions. He’s not sure yet how to get the crown, as there are just too many people in his way, but he’ll figure it out, never worry.

Over in the French court, Queen Margaret is well received, but the French King’s courtesies are hollow when faced with the political reality. Henry is in prison, Edward on the throne, and the King would be foolish to back the recent evictee over the man in possession. Warwick, so full of bluster, is dissing Margaret and her companions’ claims, and getting well in with the French King, so the news of Edward’s marriage comes as a pretty big shock. So big, in fact, that Warwick immediately changes sides. Well, he considers himself the power behind the throne, and to find out he’s not hurts his massive ego beyond endurance. Margaret, meantime, has pounced on the news like a ravenous dog given a big meaty bone. She’s the consummate politician, immediately ready to accept Warwick’s offer of friendship and support to restore Henry to the throne, despite their previous contempt and bickering.

In all of this, I feel sorry for the Lady Bona, sister of the French King, as she’s been bartered for and then dumped. Naturally, she encourages her brother to lend support to the Lancastrians, to revenge the slight on her, and who can blame her? She even has to put up with another political match being arranged right under her nose, as to ensure his loyalty, Warwick agrees to marry his daughter to Edward, Henry’s son.

Back in England, Edward’s marriage is causing some divisions. Obviously all the new in-laws have to be given titles and well-connected brides, so there are fewer for his own brothers to snaffle. Also, there’s a message from Warwick, sending in his resignation and declaring war. (You just can’t do that in a text.) On hearing that Warwick’s daughter is to marry Edward (sorry, all these repetitive names do get a bit confusing), Clarence decides to change sides, and nips off to marry Warwick’s other daughter. Frankly, it all makes Dallas look a bit tame.

So off we go to battle again. Edward (the King, this time), is captured, then freed, Henry, now King again, hands all power to Warwick, who argues that Clarence should take precedence (will wonders never cease?), Edward gets help from Burgundy, fight, fight, battle, fight, then Clarence changes sides again, and finally Edward’s forces capture Margaret and her son, kill him, take Henry prisoner, and it’s all over (till the next play). Whew!

The final scene shows the happy York family enjoying the fruits of warfare. I’ll never forget the wonderful ESC production which set this in Edwardian times (appropriately enough), ending with a final line from Richard (Andrew Jarvis) “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York”. This production echoes that slightly, by again having all the other actors towards the back, laughing and having a good time, while Richard comes forward, stands at the front of the stage, says “Now”, and then the lights go out.

Again, I felt the political shenanigans came across very well in this version, and there was even more humour as Richard, that shalt be King hereafter, gets into his stride. It’s an impressive feat to keep the audience interested in such complicated toing and froing, but Michael Boyd and his talented cast manage it very well. The use of slow motion and silhouettes continued, to good effect. I still found the energetic fighting a bit difficult to like. It may just be battle fatigue given current events, but in many ways I’m happy to feel like this. Raw patriotic fervour is all very well, but these battles are not helping anyone but the ambitious and proud.

In some ways, I would have liked to have had more time to absorb this performance on its own, before plunging into Richard III. We’ll be doing them again early next year, hopefully, so I may have more thoughts then, as well as commenting on ways in which the production has moved on.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry VI part 2 – February 2007

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Saturday 10th February 2007

At the end of the previous play, we had seen Margaret’s picture presented to the King – basically, the actress herself standing in a large picture frame, wheeled on to the stage. This framing device was used several times throughout the series, sometimes lowered down from above. As this play starts, Margaret arrives in person, to be presented to the King by Suffolk, who has married her in France as the King’s stand-in (and carried through with the nuptials?). All is well, until Gloucester, as regent, reads the marriage contract, and discovers that the bulk of the English holdings in France are to be given to Margaret’s father, while she herself comes without a dowry. As Henry takes his new bride off to be crowned, the leading nobles thoughtfully remain on stage so we can eavesdrop on their discussion.

They’re not happy bunnies, not one of them. The only slightly positive prospect is that they might unite against this foolishness of the king, but no, they still bicker and fight amongst themselves, with the naughty Cardinal seeing this as an opportunity to oust Gloucester, and the regent being concerned about England’s wealth and prosperity. Others take sides, and Richard, Duke of York is already planning to take the crown he believes he deserves. I see trouble ahead. The scene was well played, and got across the deepening divides in English government circles. (And you think Tony vs. Gordon is bad!)

Next we see the Duchess of Gloucester, a prototype for Lady Macbeth, trying to seduce her husband into bidding for the crown himself. It’s all glossed over as being a dream, but we can see she’s an ambitious lady, and when her husband leaves to join the king, she arranges a session with occult practitioners, to get more information on her glorious destiny (Maureen Beattie can play an obsessed woman to perfection). Unfortunately, the chap who’s organising all this is in the pay of the Cardinal and Suffolk – more plotting and machinations. He’s also played by Jonathan Slinger, as he’s not yet got going as Richard, so we know he’s up to no good as soon as we see him. He’s pumping up her fantasies, as if they needed it, helping her rise to a greater fall.

The political divisions are reinforced with the following scene, where several petitioners are looking for the Lord Protector to give him their petitions, and are intercepted by the Queen and her “close” supporter, Suffolk. Their petitions to the Lord Protector wind the Queen up terribly – she wants to be the wife of a powerful king, and resents the airs and graces which the Duchess of Gloucester has been putting on. The battleground is set, and now we’re going to watch several hours of it all unfolding.

Bickering and dissension flare up even more in the English court, and Henry, poor benighted soul, manages to make the worst possible decision, by selecting two sworn enemies to act as regent in France. Gloucester shows his wit and wisdom during a hunting scene, by shrewdly making a chap who’s pretending to have been cured of blindness expose himself as a liar.  Unfortunately, the trap has already closed around his wife, and her disgrace leads to his inevitable dismissal as Lord Protector.  The wolves gather.

Richard, Duke of York (Richard III’s daddy), explains his claim to the throne to Salisbury and Warwick, using stones to demonstrate the bloodlines from Edward III. His reasoning is clear, if a trifle long-winded and both men agree to support him in his claim. Meanwhile Gloucester, now unprotected, is brought down by the scheming court, and France is lost to the English crown. What more could possibly go wrong?

Well, Ireland rebels, and York is sent off to deal with it. Gloucester is bumped off, and Warwick and Suffolk square up to each other, Warwick accusing Suffolk of the deed (accurately), and Suffolk brazening it out. However, the commons make a temporary impact on the play, by demanding that Suffolk be executed or banished immediately for Gloucester’s death, so the King banishes him. His final scene with Margaret is almost touching, given that they’re a pair of villains. Oh, and the Cardinal also dies, and Suffolk is killed by some sailors when trying to go abroad, as revenge for Duke Humphrey’s death. So with several of the troublemakers now dead, will things be more peaceful? Not a chance.

To keep the country unsettled, the Duke of York has arranged for Jack Cade to lead a revolt of the common people, claiming that he’s the rightful heir. He’s soon defeated, but not before giving us a potentially entertaining look at what the country would be like if the less well educated were running the show. They even get someone up from the audience, and take them off to be executed! (But they came back again, whew.) On the Duke’s return, demanding that Somerset be thrown into the tower as a traitor, the real quarrel breaks the surface, and York announces his claim to the throne. Civil war has begun. The play ends with the first battle, a Yorkist win, but more is to come.

One aspect of the staging that I particularly liked was the recycling of the dead bodies, and there are plenty of those in this play. Gloucester, the Cardinal, Suffolk and the rest, all reappear during the play, especially during the Jack Cade sequence, as ghostly versions of themselves, and as participants in the action. It’s noticeable that the Duke of Gloucester and the Cardinal have got over their spat since their deaths – it’s nice to see them working together for a change. It was also interesting to see how this gave a very strong sense of the killings all being linked, and of the death toll mounting up and building even higher. And in many ways it reduced the confusion there can sometimes be in these plays, as actors are reused in different parts. Instead of having to stop and think who’s playing what part, I found I could just relax and go with it. Plus you have to get those dead bodies off stage somehow, so why not under their own steam? They’re also helped by a kind of Death figure, played by Antony Bunsee, who opens the doors at the back for them as they leave for the other world.

Another theme that worked its way through the whole set was bones and stones. York uses stones to show his claim, and bones appear several times during the plays – the conjuring scene, a scene with Joan of Arc, etc. I wasn’t sure what this meant, but with such a long time span to cover, I feel it helps to bind the plays together. Also, there’s a lot of prophecy in these plays, which can seem a bit redundant in some ways. After all, Shakespeare’s audience knew their recent-ish history pretty well, I assume, so they’re not going to be surprised at the twists and turns. I suspect this is a way of reassuring the audience, of letting us know that we’re in safe hands – a kind of “Next week, on Henry VI” trail of forthcoming attractions. Perhaps he’s also being a bit tongue-in-cheek, knowing full well his audience knows the story, and also knowing that several characters take the prophecies the wrong way.

While I found the political machinations much clearer this time, I still found the sheer number of characters confusing. Many are scarcely introduced to us before they’re deeply involved in the action, so that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who, apart from the major players. Perhaps Will was getting a bit carried away with having a large, talented ensemble to work with? We may never know.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me