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