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