The Taming Of The Shrew – February 2008

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Andrew Hilton

Company SATTF (Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory)

Venue: Tobacco Factory

Date: Thursday 28th February 2008

This was our first time at the Tobacco Factory, and our first for seeing this particular theatre group, so we didn’t have too many expectations. The seats were pretty basic; standard folding chairs, but with really comfy cushions, and the auditorium itself was equally basic. There were seats on all sides, and in the middle a partly tiled floor, with pillars at each corner. Apart from a long table and some chairs, that were brought on as needed, that was it. No trapdoors, nobody abseiling down ropes from the low ceiling. Just the actors and the text, which made a refreshing change.

What also made a refreshing change was the detail in the performances, especially the way that the actors were willing to take their time with their lines. Leo Wringer as Petruchio, in particular, left some valuable pauses between some of his lines, giving his character thinking time, and an opportunity not only to show that his character is thinking, but also what he’s thinking. Obviously it meant the pace was slower, but with so much to see and enjoy, that wasn’t a problem.

The Christopher Sly subplot was used here, and they added the action of him being slung out again at the end. For the rest, the twists and turns of the plot were all perfectly clear, and the various reactions, especially those of Katherine, came across very well. In this production, she seems to be an intelligent but unhappy woman, who can’t see a role for herself as wife and mother amongst these people. Petruchio offers her a lifeline, though it takes her a while to recognise it as she’s become so accustomed to snarling at everybody. Bianca is a simpering little minx, and quite frankly I’d have been irritated with her as well, but here Kate learns to rise above her immature tantrums and play whatever role she needs to. Her father’s outrageous behaviour in selling his daughters off to the highest bidder was softened here by his evident desire to be kind. Petruchio himself is fairly calm, and slower of speech than most I’ve seen; he considers what to say before saying it, but he is capable of quick response as well. He’s an ideal match for Kate; a dating agency couldn’t have done better. The difference between the couples at the end of the play is clear – Petruchio and Kate are likely to have a happy life together, while the other two couples will spend their time bickering and miserable. Unlike us, as we left the theatre, happy to have seen such a good production.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Testing The Echo – February 2008

5/10

By David Edgar

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Company: Out of Joint

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 26th February 2008

This is a new play, dealing with the experience of becoming a British citizen. In a number of short scenes, we follow the difficulties and successes of a varied group of people, some who are taking a language class and integrating their citizenship training within that, and some who are studying individually. We also get to know their reasons for wanting citizenship, although I realise I’m completely unsure of the motivation of one of the most important characters in the play, Nasrim. She’s the hijab-wearing Muslim woman who finds great difficulty in adapting to the British approach to life, objecting to even looking at a picture of a cooked breakfast as it contains pork. She eventually makes a complaint against the teacher of the class, Emma, and succeeds in driving her out of that school, and possibly out of teaching altogether

This was one of the good aspects of the production – it didn’t try to preach or moralise about the rights and wrongs of any situation, but did its best to let the characters tell their stories and leave the audience to take from it what they would. At the time, I felt that Nasrim was sincere in her beliefs, but without more information on her point of view, other than her holy book says this, or her culture says that, I’m left feeling that her character is ultimately the loser, as she remains ignorant of other possibilities for relating to people. I’m also in the dark as to why she wanted citizenship in the first place, and therefore it’s hard to assess her responses. If she wanted greater freedom and equality, then she needed to learn that other people are free too, free to choose what they want to do. It’s difficult to balance the operation of a tolerant society when there are those within it who are intolerant of those liberties – and that applies as much to our politicians as it does to immigrants or existing citizens. Still, it obviously got us thinking, and that’s no bad thing.

To help the audience understand the new citizenship test, there were lots of information snippets through the play, more at the beginning and less later on as the characters developed and their situations took over the play. I did find some of the info stuff a bit boring. It was more like a lesson than a play at times. There was a screen along the back of the acting area, and a couple of times they used this to demonstrate the difference between the original citizenship manual “Life in the UK – A Journey to Citizenship”, and the second edition, which had been “simplified”. I suspect the excerpts used were meant to make a point, but I just found them confusing, apart from a couple of comparisons in the second set, which did at least make a small joke. It wasn’t always clear how the second version had been changed from the first, and so the effort was wasted on me.

Apart from the screen, there was only the acting space, eight actors, lots of chairs and a couple of tables. The actors carried off numerous parts really well, and as their stories started to emerge, I began to enjoy the performance. At first it was dry and rather dull, but there were some interesting observations. The personal stories gave me more of an insight into some of the difficulties faced by immigrants who don’t know English particularly well, and whose cultures do nothing to prepare them for ours. One chap was constantly teased at work by his colleagues, who took his test book and kept asking him questions and poking fun at him. But they were silenced when he turned out to know a lot about football. And when one woman got her citizenship certificate, she was finally able to negotiate a better deal from her partner, who had been treating her more like property than a person. The fact that incomers to this country even have to be told that it’s an offence to be violent towards their partner is a shocking indictment of the treatment of women worldwide, and one reason why I still consider our culture more advantageous than some on the planet. We’re not perfect, but at least we seem to have learned some valuable lessons; I hope we don’t unlearn them in trying to treat all other cultures as equal to ours.

We also attended the post-show discussion, but although there were some interesting comments, I didn’t learn more about the production than I’d already seen. Sadly, I didn’t think to ask what the title meant, so I’ve no idea how that relates to the play. On the whole I enjoyed it, but there were dull moments.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – February 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 22nd February 2008

This could take some time. When we saw this play previously, just over a year ago, it was at the end of a long Saturday seeing three plays, having caught Henry VI part 1 the night before. I was tired, it took ages to catch up on my notes, and although I enjoyed it, I only gave it six stars. A year later, and with the cast having re-rehearsed all the plays only last month, it’s almost a different production. I’ll put in as much as I can of the staging, but first I have to say this was just about the best Richard III I’ve seen – it ranks up there with the ESC’s Wars of the Roses and Andrew Jarvis’s performance, and probably tops it in some areas.

To start, the lights go down, and I could see at least one character walk past us on the walkway for the opening. When the lights went up, there was Richard himself, standing roughly in the middle of the stage, as he was at the end of Henry VI Part 3, cradling what appears to be a baby in his arms. To our left, on the walkway, stands a boy, dressed in the white of the “good” characters, presumably the young Prince Edward. This is clarified when Richard indicates the young man as “this son of York”. It’s a nice touch, especially when the young lad comes over to his uncle, who puts his arm round him. Richard’s lines are spoken jocularly to the prince, and after “the lascivious pleasing of a lute”, the youngster runs off stage, and Richard can get down to the business of being a villain, which he does so well.

The cloth he had been holding at the start was bundled up to look like a baby, and right at the beginning he flicks it out, as if throwing the child away. He then tucks the extra large napkin into his collar, as if about to have a meal. While talking to the prince, he’s all smiles and charm and playfulness. Once the prince leaves, the darker side comes out, and there’s an element of temper in his railing about his deformities. Yet he’s also a thinker, and a layer of plots, as we soon see. Clarence arrives, and the ubiquitous Antony Bunsee as Keeper-of-all-things (in this case, Brakenbury) appears at the balcony to take Clarence into his keeping at the Tower. I should mention that this production is predominately modern dress, but the keeper character is wearing much the same red outfit as before, only with trousers. There are one or two other variations, but I’ll deal with them as I go.

Richard and Clarence mainly talk at the front of the stage, and Richard is loud enough to be easily overheard. He seems straightforward enough – concerned for his brother, and convinced the queen is behind Clarence’s arrest. Brakenbury’s intervention is delivered in an unemotional way, almost flat, but Richard gets as much humour as he can from the word play. Richard’s little asides after Clarence is taken off are starting to show the playfulness of Richard’s villainy, and after greeting Hastings on his release (and giving him a gun), he continues in this vein. The lines “What, though I kill’d her husband ….husband and her father” got a good laugh. One nice touch – when Hastings steps out of the Tower, he’s holding a clear plastic bag with his belongings.

Henry’s corpse arrives, carried on a stretcher by a couple of bearers, and with other men holding up Henry’s picture to the audience as they go. Ann appears (on the balcony, I think), and tells the men to set the body down so that she can deliver her speech to it. She makes the customary mistake of uttering some curses, and those of us familiar with the play know that she’ll be the one to suffer for it.

When Richard arrives, he has several armed men with him, and forces the bearers to put the body down. They withdraw pretty sharpish to the back of the stage, leaving Ann, down now from the balcony, to confront Richard. I don’t remember if these men leave now or later. She lifts the sheet off Henry’s face and chest, exposing the wounds, still bloody, and getting bloodier by the minute, as Richard’s presence makes them gush again.

The wooing scene was very good. Ann is obviously swayed by Richard’s flattery, for all the insults she hurls at him. Mind you, he does a good job, always putting her beauty at the centre of his argument. Even so, I noticed he had to do some rapid deflections of her attempts to stab him with his own knife, otherwise the play would have been over sooner than expected. She’s not completely won over at the end, but not far off, and I was thinking how a system of arranged marriages amongst the nobility probably makes this kind of thing more believable. After all, she probably didn’t really love her husband, the Lancastrian Prince Edward, and a lot of her grieving could just be a formal display of respect. In those circumstances, it might be easier to move on to another husband, although she has gone for the worst possible choice. Richard has his men take Henry’s body to a different place than Ann had planned – his men put the stretcher down, turn around, and pick it up facing the other way – and then we’re left alone with him to enjoy his reaction to his success. This was really good, and showed how much this portrayal has come on. Jonathan Slinger worked this speech much more with the audience, and brought out all the character’s thoughts and his own amazement at how well he’s done. He can appreciate how outrageous her conversion is, far more than the woman herself. Of course, he knows he’s lying, and she isn’t sure, but even so.

At the palace, the queen and her family are discussing the situation. The queen is troubled by Edward’s ill health, and despite their attempts to comfort her with thoughts of her son being Edward’s heir, she’s smart enough to realise the danger she’s in. Richard arrives, complaining about being slandered because he’s such a straightforward chap who “cannot flatter and speak fair”, which we’ve just seen him do, and do very well, with Ann. His bare-faced cheek, obvious to the audience, is very entertaining. He manages to get everyone in a tizzy, and provokes the queen to wish herself “ a country servantmaid” rather than put up with these attacks. The previous queen, Margaret, sneaks on to the balcony at this point – the rest are down below – and comments on the brawling.

Richard lets rip with all his resentments. He’s helped the king get his crown by fighting, risking his own life for his family, and now the queen and her family, supporters of Lancaster, are reaping the rewards. They respond in kind, though not with kindness, and eventually Margaret steps forward to have her say. Katy Stephens played this part magnificently. From her start in Henry VI part 1 as a drop-dead gorgeous starlet in a stunning red dress, through the battling queen in armour of the next two plays, to this greying woman, dressed all in black, and wearing a large bundle wrapped round her torso, she’s conveyed a tremendous emotional journey. OK, the woman’s another villain in a sense, killing just as happily as this Richard, but she’s always had the total conviction of her right to rule. It just so happens that in this culture she needs a king for a husband to be able to do that; nowadays she’d just sleep her way to the top of some big corporation, getting rid of her opponents on the way. Or perhaps she’d marry an aspiring politician? Anyway, it’s a great performance, and the emotional truth came across every second she was on stage.

For her cursing of those present, she drops her bundle, and lets the rotted skeleton of (I presume) her son Edward, fall out onto the stage. There’s a predictable reaction from the other characters – they step well back, and cover their noses. It’s an ugly sight, but shows Margaret’s craziness and obsession beautifully. She lays her shawl out on the ground, and as she curses, places another part of the skeleton in place. The ease with which she finds the relevant bones suggested to me that Margaret’s done this many times before, and that in itself is chilling.

She’s really rattled when Richard interrupts her final curse, but still manages to snap back at the others when they snipe at her – Richard’s intervention has given them back their confidence. When Buckingham comes over to her, trying to persuade her to shut up, she’s friendly, as she hasn’t been hurt by him or his family in the past. She kisses his hand, and as a friendly gesture, warns Buckingham to beware of Richard. He rebuffs her by responding, to Richard’s enquiry, that he doesn’t respect her. With no friends at all in the palace, she leaves, after a final prophesy that Buckingham will regret his choice. At least she stopped them bickering among themselves, but how long will that last?

Catesby enters to summon them all to the king, and all leave except Richard, who gives us a rundown of his technique for causing trouble. At the front of the stage, two men arrive, coming up the centre aisle. They’re in suits (brownish or grey?), and wearing glasses. They look like contract killers, and they turn out to be the two men whom Richard has hired to bump off Clarence. Their lack of compassion pleases Richard, and his “I like you, lads” was very funny. When one asks for the warrant they need in order to get at Clarence, Richard realises he’d forgotten it, and pulls a bit of paper out of his right hand pocket. As he walks forward to give it to them, he remembers it’s the wrong one, and gets the paper from his left pocket instead. We’ll understand the significance of that later.

As they leave, and the keeper brings on the bed and a stool for the prison cell, I realised that this play links thought and action very closely in time. Richard plans, and almost immediately he does. In other versions, I’ve been more aware of the long journey he needs to make to get the crown. Here it seems really quick, as the pace is so fast.

Clarence is in bed, asleep, with Brakenbury sitting on the stool beside him. Clarence makes some noises, then wakes up, drenched in sweat. He recounts his dream to Brakenbury, and as he does so, I found myself wondering if Will had come across a story of a near death experience and decided to dramatise it. What also comes across is that Clarence feels the weight of his sins lying heavily on him. He goes back to sleep, and now the two murderers turn up, looking menacing. Brakenbury clearly knows there’s something unpleasant about to happen, but there’s nothing he can do about it, so he takes himself off. The two murderers go through their preparations, and as usual, there are a lot of laughs to be had from their struggles with their consciences. The first murderer reminding the second of the money they’ll get for the murder soon sorts him out, and gets the expected laugh. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed the company of murderers and villains so much in a long time – this was the funniest version of this section that I’ve seen.

Unfortunately, they’ve taken so long chatting that Clarence wakes up, and does his best to talk them out of killing him. It doesn’t work, of course, although it does slow them down, but finally the first murderer slashes him in the stomach, and dumps him on the bed, which by now has been thrust to the back of the stage. Clarence lies there, clutching his stomach and struggling to stay alive, while the second murderer tenders his resignation, leaving the first murderer to wheel the body off.

Back at the palace, Edward appears on the balcony, drip in arm, with an attendant holding what looked like a flask. The rest of the nobility, except Richard, are below, and carry out a series of reconciliations that a blind person would have seen as hollow and false. Still, they satisfy the king, at least until Richard arrives. He naturally outdoes everyone else in desiring to be reconciled to everyone present. He goes to each noble in turn, and when he gets to the Marquis of Dorset, he gives him all three of his titles, adding “Lord Woodville, and Lord Scales” which got a good laugh. All seems well, until the queen, thinking to take advantage of the good nature on show, asks the king to release Clarence. Richard immediately flares up into a temper, and in the process tells everyone that Clarence is dead. The king is appalled, and this is where the second bit of paper is relevant. In explaining that the countermand to the first order came too late, Richard pulls the paper out of his pocket and says “some tardy cripple bore the countermand”, doing a bit of limping and jokingly hitting himself on the head, as if to say, silly me! With nerves and emotions at breaking point, Stanley enters to plead for the life of one of his servants. Edward has a moving rant about how no one pleaded for Clarence, and yet everyone expects the king to grant their suits for this and that. It would, of course, be more moving if Edward hadn’t sent Clarence to the Tower in the first place, nor sent that first order to have him killed, but he’s ill, and upset, so I can certainly sympathise. He grants Stanley’s request, and staggers off, followed by the queen and all except Richard and Buckingham, who eventually leave after Richard’s put the blame on the queen for Clarence’s death.

Now I know Richard, Duke of York (Richard III’s father) was without a title for a while, so he’d probably fallen on hard times, but I did think it a bit much that his widow is still charring at her age. Maureen Beattie, as the Duchess of York, mother to the current king (the female parts in this play can get very confusing), comes onto stage carrying a bucket, and proceeds to mop a patch of floor to our right. Above her, on the balcony, stand two children, a son and daughter of Clarence. It’s a slightly confusing scene, and one that’s often cut, I suspect, as I don’t recall it from previous productions. Basically the Duchess is telling the children that their father isn’t dead (porky) and that she’s grieving for her son, Edward, being so ill. They know full well their father’s dead, and have been told by Richard that the queen arranged it. The Duchess is appalled at this deceit, and yet the children still believe it.

The queen now enters, with a couple of her family, to tell us all that the king is dead. The women go into the competitive mourning that’s so typical of the histories, and a few of the other plays. The queen has had her losses, but the Duchess contends that at least she has her sons left to comfort her. The Duchess is left with only one son, Richard, and she doesn’t see much prospect of him filling her heart with gladness any time soon. The men try to chip in with practical advice (have they learned nothing about handling an emotional woman?) and just then Richard and the rest of the court arrive to organise bringing the new king to London. As they head off past us to arrange who will go to accompany the prince, Richard and Buckingham are at the rear, and before leaving, Buckingham, standing behind Richard, advises him to make sure they’re both in the escort. He promises to deal with the queen’s relatives, and Richard is almost ecstatic at having such a co-conspirator.

The next scene simply concerns a group of citizens in the text; here Michael Boyd has taken advantage of the existing characters to the full. One of the citizens is the second murderer, looking like he’s leaving the country and doesn’t want to be noticed. Another is an attractive woman, while the third is Catesby, looking menacing in his black suit, sunglasses and carrying a coffee. Another man in black is there, adding to the menace – I don’t remember now if that was the first murderer or someone else, although the first murderer does come on as one of Richard’s enforcers later. There’s a general air of menace in this scene, suggesting the police state is developing nicely. Nicely for Richard, that is. It’s clear that speaking one’s mind is not going to be welcome or indeed advisable from now on.

After they leave, we head back to the palace, where the queen is waiting for news of her son’s arrival from Ludlow. Her other son, the young Duke of York, is with her, and when she comments on how he’s growing so fast he’ll have outgrown his older brother, he cheekily passes on Richard’s comment that “Small herbs have grace, great weeds do grow apace.” The Duchess disputes that, given Richard’s own life, and the boy blabs about Richard being born with teeth. It’s a nice little scene, introducing us to the young Duke, and giving us some more information about Richard that we’ll need to know later. I don’t know which of the young actors was playing the young Duke tonight, but he did a very good job. A messenger brings them the news that Rivers and Grey have been taken to Pomfret, and the queen takes her son with her to claim sanctuary.

The prince arrives on stage with Buckingham, and then his uncle, Richard, arrives, laden with presents – several boxes and a space hopper – which he has to put down before greeting him properly. There’s the usual concern over getting the prince’s brother out of sanctuary, and Buckingham is oily enough to fire a power station in explaining away the difficulties. While they wait, the prince is full of wise snippets and ideas, and Richard has some funny asides – “So wise so young, they say, do never live long”. Young York arrives, and after greeting his brother, turns to a battle of words with Richard, who is now sitting on the space hopper. It’s more barbed than I remember from previous productions, and it’s clear that Richard is getting the worst of it, though that’s partly because he’s keeping up the façade of being a kindly uncle. Buckingham smoothes things over with his evil charm, and the princes head off to the Tower. Richard and Buckingham then discuss with Catesby whether Hastings can be persuaded to join in a plot to put Richard on the throne. Catesby reckons he won’t hear of it, and Lord Stanley will follow whichever line Hastings takes. They send him off to test this out, and then consider briefly what to do if Hastings isn’t willing to join in. Richard’s “Chop off his head” was said so swiftly, it got a laugh. He also promises Buckingham the earldom of Hereford once he, Richard, becomes king.

A messenger rouses Hastings at his home, and he comes on stage, dressing. He’s obviously spent an enjoyable night, as his companion is the attractive lady we saw in an earlier scene, and whom we later find out is Mistress Shore. She’s dressed in just a shirt and a pair of shoes, showing off her long legs to good advantage, and helps Hastings to dress in a very affectionate way. It may even have distracted me from the lines a little, but I got the gist – Hastings is being warned to stay away from the court, as Stanley has had a dream that the boar (Richard) will kill him. Hastings is confident that he’s in no danger, and tells Stanley’s messenger so. Then Catesby arrives, coffee in hand, and broaches the subject of making Richard king. Hastings is clearly against the idea, but is glad to hear that the queen’s kin are to die at Pomfret. Catesby keeps making comments that could be taken as warnings – “’Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord, When men are unprepar’d and look not for it.” – but Hastings is a perfect example of pride heading for a fall. Stanley turns up, and reinforces his earlier concern, pointing out that the Lords at Pomfret probably felt secure until they were condemned, but Hastings still refuses to see the obvious. Another couple of people turn up, including Buckingham, and then they’re off to the Tower.

Just to show us some actual deaths – the Elizabethans liked their violence, remember, and so far only Clarence has been killed on stage – we get to see Rivers, Grey and another chap getting killed at Pomfret. They’re brought on blindfolded and tied up, and get a few minutes to stand there, giving us their last words. Naturally, they’re pretty unhappy with the situation, and then they’re shot. They did this very well, with something approaching the right recoil from the impact of the bullets. All three then get up and head off for the underworld.

Now the stage is set up for the council meeting. Clear plastic chairs are brought on, and a group of officials are present, including Hastings, Stanley, Buckingham and the Bishop of Ely. They start discussing when to have the coronation, and Buckingham disingenuously asks if anyone knows what Richard, now Lord Protector, thinks. He’s quick to disclaim knowing Richard intimately (porkies, again), and sets up Hastings as the expert on Richard’s inner thoughts. Hastings, the fool, takes the bait, and is about to speak on behalf of Richard when the man himself turns up.

At first, Richard seems happy with the situation, and commends Hastings. He asks the bishop to send for some of the strawberries that he saw growing in his garden, and then waits, pointedly looking at the bishop, until he leaves to send for them. Richard then takes Buckingham to one side for a quiet chat, leaving the rest to talk amongst themselves, which they do. They resume the discussion about the coronation date, and Hastings comments on how cheerful Richard looks, expressing the view that Richard is the least deceitful man he knows. The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and Shakespeare builds this guy up to be the biggest chump ever.

When Richard re-appears, he’s in a temper, and he’s accompanied by some of the men in suits, and also Mistress Shore. Hastings presumably realises he’s in trouble now, but still speaks up, and Richard commands that Hastings’ head be cut off. Richard then leaves, telling the rest to come along if they love him, and leaving them in no doubt what will happen if they don’t. Stanley takes the longest time to go, looking pleadingly at Hastings, who acknowledges that he has no other choice. Richard’s henchmen take Hastings away, after he gets to say some last bitter words, and then the stage is set up for the scene where Richard persuades the Mayor of London that Hastings’ death was necessary.

Now last time, the setup was different, and I remember Richard and Buckingham taking cover behind a table, presumably the one that had been on stage for the meeting. This time, while the chairs are being removed, Catesby brings on a car door and dumps it on the stage to our right. He also brings on some tyres and other debris, while Richard and Buckingham reappear in battle gear, doing themselves up with camouflage makeup, and we hear the instructions for the special effects clearly over the speakers. It’s quite a production – no wonder the Mayor looks terrified when he shows up. There’s explosions, the sound of a helicopter, and gunfire. There may also have been armed men descending on ropes; it’s happened so much in these productions I may be remembering another occasion. When Hastings’ head is brought on, in a plastic bag, they explain his treachery, and the Mayor is only too happy to speak as if he’d heard the confession directly from Hastings himself. As the Mayor leaves to spread the word, and one of Richard’s men is putting police tape round the stage (the audience are holding it in place), Richard instructs Buckingham to put out a lot of spin discrediting King Edward and his children, even going as far as to imply Edward himself was a bastard. Buckingham heads off to do this, and Richard lays some more plans, and then he’s off. I thought this would be the interval, but no. Geoffrey Freshwater, as the scrivener, comes on with a huge bundle of papers, both newspapers and white sheets. He spells out the length of time it’s taken him to write the indictment of Hastings, and yet Hastings’ crime was apparently only discovered hours after he’d started writing. He dumps the papers on the ground in disgust – he obviously recognises there were no WMD. And then, the interval.

Richard is clearly keen to know how the general population took Buckingham’s stories, and fortunately, there’s a large chunk of the general population on hand, sitting comfortably around him, to refer to during this scene. We were indeed mute, apart from the occasional laugh, and it’s not surprising. Buckingham describes the speech he gave, and there’s a good bit of humour when he refers to Richard’s lineaments being more like his father’s than Edward’s were. With the Mayor about to turn up, Buckingham preps Richard for his next scene, telling him not to accept the crown too easily, and the trap is set.

In front of the Mayor and us, the assembled throng, Buckingham and Richard perform their little play. At first, Catesby comes out to say that Richard isn’t available – he’s meditating. When Catesby goes back to re-invite Richard to come out, Buckingham uses the time to spin to the crowd what a noble character Richard has, compared to the previous king. Again Catesby enters to say that Richard fears why such a huge number of people have come to speak to him. Then Catesby’s given another message and sent back, and this time Richard appears on the balcony, with the Bishop of Ely and another churchman beside him.

This next bit is a great piece of theatre, and this production does it very well. It’s hugely enjoyable to sit back and watch two masters of deception spin their web. If I didn’t know better, I might have believed them myself, but as it is it’s good fun to listen to some fairly long speeches which we know to be completely false. Richard’s expressions of humility, and protests that he isn’t fit to be king, and that there are two other princes who come before him, were beautifully done. When Buckingham leaves, he gets a fair distance away before Richard can get him back, and then Richard reluctantly accepts the crown. When Buckingham says “Then I salute you with this royal title: Long live King Richard, England’s worthy king!” we, the audience, are encouraged to join in with the second part, which I happily did. We obviously created enough noise, as Buckingham gave us the thumbs-up afterwards.

Now the queen, the Duchess and various family members, those that are still alive, meet up at the tower. Brakenbury tells them that they can’t see the princes, and lets slip that it’s on the king’s orders. He amends it to the Lord Protector, but the seeds of doubt are sown, only to be confirmed a few moments later, when Stanley arrives to instruct Ann to go to Westminster, to be crowned Richard’s queen. The ex-queen advises the Marquis of Dorset to flee to Richmond (that’s the character, not the place), and Stanley supports this, adding that he will give him letters to take to his, Stanley’s, son. The women do a bit more grieving, and Ann recognises she’s the victim of her own curse.

The coronation was a significant piece of staging. Before a single line has been spoken, the court assembles, and Richard walks down the aisle to the front of the stage, dressed in a golden robe, highly reminiscent of the first entrance of Richard II. Ann is wearing what appears to be virtually the same costume she wore as Richard II’s wife, and as these are the only old-fashioned clothes, they really stand out. In fact, it was at this point that I realised that the same actress was playing both Richards’ wives. The cross-casting may take some time to figure out, but it’s worth it in the end.

As Richard stands at the front of the stage, the doors open, and backlit figures emerge. They’re the ghosts that Richard has killed or in some way upset – Henry VI, Warwick, Clarence, and I think Edward. No one else seems to notice them, but Richard gets a bad case of the jitters. The ghosts confront him and then leave, and then the steps from Richard II are wheeled on at the back. Above them on the balcony stands daddy – the original Duke of York – holding the crown. Richard practically gallops up those steps to receive his prize, and then he and the steps are wheeled forward to the centre of the stage for the scene proper to start.

While Richard and Buckingham talk, the others are walking around the stage, taking drinks from trays, silently. Richard is definitely pumped up, and finds Buckingham relaxed, and ready to enjoy the glories he and Richard have won at a leisurely pace. He’s not keen on killing the princes, and goes off to consider his options. But Richard can’t wait, and Catesby (I think) provides a suitable candidate, Tyrell. News comes that the Marquis of Dorset has fled to Richmond, and suddenly Richard instructs Catesby to spread the word that Ann, the new-crowned queen, is sick and will probably die. Tired of her already. Actually, Richard knows he needs to consolidate his position, and intends to marry his brother’s daughter, i.e. his niece, to make his claim secure. I found myself wondering about the relative ages and how much time had elapsed between plays, but I couldn’t manage that when so much was happening on stage.

Tyrell arrives, and agrees to kill the princes without any noticeable hesitation. Off he goes, and Buckingham returns, ready at last to discuss the princes, only for Richard to fob him off. He fobs him off from his reward as well. As Buckingham asks for those things Richard promised him several scenes ago, Richard muses on the prophesy that Richmond would be king, uttered by Henry VI himself. There’s a number of lines cut in this production, so no references to clocks, but Richard is still pretty snappy with Buckingham, who realises he’s somehow fallen out of favour, and decides to make a run for it.

With everyone off the stage, Tyrell comes back on, and reports to us the story of the killing of the two princes, as told to him by the actual murderers. When Richard comes on, eating, Tyrell gives him the news, and answers his questions in full, giving him a digital camera so he can see the pictures taken of the dead princes. After Tyrell leaves, Richard informs us that Ann is dead, and when news comes that Buckingham  has raised an army, Richard has to rush to prepare for a fight.

Margaret reappears, happy to see how her enemies are going to rack and ruin, and many to an early death. She backs off to the shadows when the ex-queen and the Duchess come along to have a communal moaning session. Margaret joins in, giving them a lesson in how to do obsessive grieving, and for once this scene wasn’t too boring. I suspect lines were cut, but it all came across pretty clearly, and didn’t go on too long. After Margaret leaves, Richard arrives with his troops, though we don’t see them. The Duchess and the ex-queen start to have a go at him, but he tells the musicians to start playing, and they’re nearly drowned out. Richard just stands there, bouncing along to the music. He stops it briefly when his mother seems to have run out of steam, but then she starts up again, and so does the music. It’s a great compliment to Maureen Beattie’s vocal powers that I could still hear her, just, over the loud music. Eventually he heads off stage, but she has one last word. Well, lots of words, actually, because she tells him this will be the last time she speaks to him. He listens to her curse him, and then she leaves, so that only Richard and the ex-queen are left on stage.

Now Richard has to woo another woman he’s wronged, but this time he’s wooing the queen so he can marry her daughter. She gives back as good as she gets, and it’s a long scene, cut of course, but still lengthy. This time, she’s not persuaded by any of Richard’s arguments about the good he intends to do for her family, but she does see the political necessity, and agrees to talk with her daughter. Catesby and Ratcliff turn up with news that Richmond himself is now invading, and Richard sends them on various errands. At first, he gets angry with Catesby for not going as soon as he tells him to go, and I think he hits him, but as Catesby points out, Richard hasn’t yet given him the message he’s to deliver, and Richard relents, patting him on the head.

It all gets a bit frantic now, with lots of messengers flying to and fro, and both sides striding on and off the stage in rapid succession. There’s a battle to fight, they can’t hang about! Richard gets even more stroppy, hitting people who bring him bad news, except that sometimes it’s good news, and he has to give them some money to make up for it. Buckingham is captured, and executed, after the usual comments about how it was all prophesied, and Stanley gets word to Richmond that he can’t be too obviously on his side, as Richard holds his son as hostage.

Both sides arrive near Bosworth, and prepare for battle the next day. Richmond speaks with Stanley, and then settles down to sleep for a while. He’s at the front of the stage, and before lying down, kneels with his sword like a cross in front of him. He prays, and I was reminded of Henry V praying, possibly in exactly the same position, before the battle of Agincourt. He lies down to sleep, and then the doors open, and we see Richard lying, asleep, at the back. He’s only wearing his top and knickers, so his legs are bare. He wakes suddenly, and gets up, and all his blemishes are gone. He can walk straight, he has no hump, his arm is fine, and his Gorbachev has disappeared. He’s ecstatic, but sadly, it’s only a dream. As the ghosts appear, starting with his wife, Ann, they give him back his deformities. She holds his arm, and then it’s shrivelled again. Another, possibly Rivers, shoots him in the leg, and he’s hobbling. Hastings (or possibly Buckingham) slapped the birthmark back on his head, and Edward (the king as was) takes a picture. This time, the ghost of the Duke of York is on the balcony with his two murdered sons, and he’s not a happy bunny. The ghosts on stage all stop to give Richmond their support, then they clear off, and Richard is left to consider his position. It’s not good, morally speaking, and finally he seems to recognise that. He’s not in a good frame of mind for the battle, but the show must go on, and he leaves with Ratcliff, determined to find out if any of his supporters are disloyal.

Richmond, on the other hand, has had a very good night’s sleep, and gives a pretty good speech to his men. Again, it recalls some of Henry V’s words, especially when he claims that he won’t be ransomed. Richard’s speech to his men must have been cut, or else my memory’s much worse than I thought. It certainly has its problems, as I don’t remember the details of the fighting. In fact I think it was pretty sparse, as all that’s needed is for Richard to get killed, which Richmond does pretty quickly, and then we have his final speech. During this, he brings to a close the Wars of the Roses, and when he mentions the son killing the father, and the father the son, he exchanges looks with Stanley, as these two have represented father and son throughout the cycle – Percy and Hotspur, Talbot and John Talbot, Father who kills his son and Son who kills his father. It was a moving moment, to have these two characters suggest the echoes of their previous incarnations, and it’s a lovely end to a great performance.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry VI part 3 – February 2008

10/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st February 2008

            Originally: The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York, and the Death of Good King Henry the Sixth, with the whole Contention between the two houses Lancaster and York.

The original title for this play is quite a mouthful, and this is quite a production. We enjoyed these plays well enough first time around but that was last February, and they, and the ensemble, have grown a great deal since then. We also saw them over one evening and one day last time; this week we’re giving them more time, so that we can appreciate them more fully.

I don’t know how long it’s going to take to note up all the points I noticed tonight, but the sooner I start the sooner I’ll catch as much as I can of such a fleeting experience. The opening carries on from the ending of Henry VI part 2; York and his supporters, including his sons, burst onto the stage through the doors at the back looking for their opponents, but too late. York’s sons show the blood (on their hands) and name those they have killed. Typically, Richard (junior) goes one better than his brothers and wears the face of the noble he killed. (I didn’t catch the name tonight, but the text informs me it was Somerset.) It’s a gruesome image and predicts how the evening will go – the gore fest has begun. I could imagine the producers of Will’s first play (part 2) coming to him afterwards and saying something like, “OK Will, that was pretty good, but you’ve got to give them more blood, more violence. Look at how they lapped up John Cade and all the fighting at the end of your first play. Give us more of that.” And, trust me, Will obliged. There’s still plenty of good language to enjoy, if anything it’s better than part 2, but he’s gone from Stoppard to Tarantino in one play. Nice work, Will.

Warwick encourages Richard to sit on the throne and as he does so, King Henry and his supporters arrive, also entering through the doors. It’s an awkward moment. At first Henry debates the situation with his men – they want to fight, he recognises they don’t have the balance of power yet. He intends to fight with words, and so they do, slagging each other off like kids in the playground. After a bit Henry, despite sounding ready to fight to a standstill, recognises that his title’s weak and offers a compromise. If he can reign for his lifetime, he’ll appoint York his heir. It’s an attempt to stop the bloodshed but it’s about as much use as putting a sticking plaster on a severed neck. Henry’s supporters aren’t happy at Henry disinheriting his own son Edward, while even York’s supporters look less than ecstatic. Warwick in particular looks like he prefers to sort things out by fighting rather than negotiating a peace. And it’s not long before York’s sons are causing mischief. But for now the deal is signed, Henry’s followers leave in disgust, and Henry holds out the crown to York as they swear to abide by the agreement. This echoes the stance taken by Richard II and Henry IV, and briefly by Henry IV and Henry V. Then York and his followers disperse leaving Henry to face his queen (oops) who has apparently learned the bad news off stage and arrives with her son to give Henry a serious ear-bashing. She’s the opposite of the king – all fire and courage – and she determines to raise the troops to restore her son to his rightful place as heir to his father. By this time, the whole idea of any of these people having any right to anything seemed absurd. The death toll is mounting, both sides have committed terrible acts of slaughter and worse is to come – who can tell which lot had right on their side by this time? Frankly, England will be better off when they’ve killed so many of the nobility that there’s nothing left to fight about, though it’s not really a solution to be desired.

The next scene opens with Rutland and his tutor singing a song to York. It’s pretty enough, with York showing his love and affection for the boy. (And it’s not in my text.) Then we see York’s three older sons put pressure on their father to take the crown now, instead of waiting for Henry to die. (My text has the Marquis of Montague instead of George, but I remember it as the three sons.) It’s clear that Richard is a significant influence on his father. York favoured him in the opening scene, and now it’s Richard who explains away York breaking his oath to Henry. It’s not just his arguments but his passion to see his father crowned that sways York. He agrees to go ahead in secret but then news comes of the queen’s army which is advancing on them. Although outnumbered they’re ready to fight and I reckoned York was pleased by this turn of events – it gets him off the hook, as he can claim he kept his part of the bargain and the queen was the one causing trouble. He’s confident despite the odds. He fought battles against greater numbers in France and won, so what’s the problem here? I thought, but that was against the French, this is against his own countrymen so maybe he’s being over-confident.

With the battle underway, the next thing we see is Rutland and his tutor entering through the doors and hiding in the underground bunker. Clifford and two others enter, prowling round the stage to find their prey. Clifford spots the trapdoors and signals his men to open them up. The tutor is spared because he’s a clergyman and he’s dragged off despite his protests that he wants to stay with Rutland. Then Clifford closes the doors, keeping Rutland with him and prepares to kill the boy. In the previous play this act was set up by Clifford’s speech over his father’s dead body, declaring that that was such a brutal act that he would forgo pity from then on, and if he came across the most innocent child of the York line he would kill it without compunction. Now he gets to do exactly that.

He’s very meticulous with this act of murder. He walked towards us (we were right beside the walkway) taking off his coat and folding it carefully before placing it over one of the rungs of the ladder. He also took off his sword and placed it on the ground, leaving him only his knife to kill Rutland. One of the advantages of the ensemble is having sufficient actors to cover the children’s parts and so these roles come across much more strongly. This was the case with Rutland, played by Alexia Healy. His pleading for his life was relatively clear and helped to strengthen both Clifford’s performance and the horror of the situation. Once dead, Rutland is the first one in this play to get up and walk off. Actually, most of the ghosts seem disoriented at first, stumbling a bit as they get up and taking a few seconds to figure out where they’re to go. Antony Bunsee plays the heavenly (or devilish?) gatekeeper who assists the newly deceased on their path. It’s a good way to keep the stage clear and allows the dead to come back on at a later time.

There’s another motif within this cycle, and used most frequently in this play, which is that a dead character passing through the doors of death is seen by another character coming onto the stage from the front. The live character walks towards the dead one but just fails to catch them before the doors close, leaving them stranded at the back of the stage. This happens with Rutland and York, and joins the two scenes together. York has been badly injured and is unable to flee when the queen and her party enter. They take full advantage, and soon York has been set upon a molehill (purely imaginary) for the queen to talk at with as much scorn as she can manage (and she can manage a fair bit). She taunts York with his missing sons, doing a funny imitation of Richard as she mentions him, but that’s just the intro. Now she moves on to Rutland, and does her best to wound York with her words about Rutland’s death, as Clifford did with his knife on the boy himself. She really wants to see York suffer, and for as long as possible he refuses to give her the satisfaction. She puts the paper crown on his head that Clifford took from the place of Rutland’s death (the boy had been wearing it) and rails some more at York, then takes off the crown and orders that his head be removed as well, only to halt the act so she can hear what he has to say. This is the famous bit, the “tiger’s heart” speech, and was done very well. York’s suffering is clear, and now he breaks down as the grief of losing his young son takes hold. It’s noticeable that so many of these ruthless power-hungry nobles feel grief only for their own losses, not for another’s. Sadly, this is why so many people are killed without compassion, as revenge piles up the dead bodies past comprehension.

While York is having his turn, the queen isn’t a statue either. She nods her head slightly as he’s pointing out that women should be soft, cuddly creatures (Shakespeare puts it better, but that’s the gist) then moves to the centre front of the stage and hunkers down, fixing her eyes on York as he expresses his deepest woes, drinking in her victory with an unnerving intensity. To remind us just how moving York’s story is, Northumberland voices his feelings of pity only to be rebuked by the queen. They performed this scene particularly well, as it’s very wordy and it can be difficult to keep the emotional energy going, but this time each syllable cut like a knife, and I couldn’t take my eyes off the queen and York.

After the queen and company leave, with York’s dead body lying on the ground, we have another segue. This time York’s body rises, and with a few staggers heads off the stage. Meanwhile Richard has come on at the front of the stage and he follows his father, arriving at the doors just as they close. He stands there, back to us, head down, looking like he’s grieving, while Edward comes on to say the opening lines of Act 2. Clarence is with him, and this is the point where they see three suns which merge into one. The messenger who arrives to tell them of their father’s death is none other than Rutland’s tutor (Julius D’Silva) who’s really having a bad day. He sees young Rutland killed, then he witnesses York’s death; no wonder he takes to drink. Initially it’s just a little hip flask he sneaks out of his pocket, but later it’s a whole bottle.

I seem to remember George saying some lines in this scene, but if he did they must have been invented or pinched from Edward, as he’s silent in my text. Both Edward and George grieve for their father – Richard is all anger and a desire for revenge. At this point Warwick arrives and gives a lengthy account of what’s happened since York’s death, which Warwick had heard about ten days before. Basically he tells them about the battle of St. Albans where the queen’s forces won, with Warwick and his army running off. This is unusual enough for Richard to comment on, but then they make plans for another fight as the queen and her troops are on their way.

I think the ghost of York may have come on to the balcony before the end of the last scene, but either way York now appears, bloody napkin hanging from his mouth, and settles into a position where he can rest his head on the edge of the balcony. The queen arrives with Henry, Clifford, Northumberland and the young prince Edward, and Henry makes it clear that York’s death wasn’t his fault. The lines spoken by Clifford in my text may have been given to the queen; I seem to remember her chastising Henry for giving away his son’s birthright. Henry knights his son, and then Edward and his men arrive. Henry insists on staying despite Clifford’s comment that they do a lot better when he’s absent, and then we get the usual argy-bargy about who kneels to whom as king. Henry’s side are lined up with their backs to the doors, while Edward’s crew are ranged across the front of the stage. The sight of Clifford so enrages Richard that he has to be restrained by a couple of nobles from dashing over and attacking him, not once but twice. They hurl insults back and forth and Henry tries to speak to sort things out, but given his disastrous track record on that score just about everyone tries to shut him up, starting with his own side. Lots more insults later (I think there may have been some pruning here) both sides flounce off to resume the fighting, and York’s head takes itself off as well.

Next Warwick dashes back on, tired and weary. He’s taking a quick breather and sounds almost astonished that such a fantastic warrior as himself actually needs a rest now and again. Patrice Naiambana has great presence as Warwick. He uses a lot of large, dramatic movements to convey Warwick’s arrogance and authority, all at a measured pace that could be dull if it wasn’t for the way he expresses restrained energy. He’s a hothead, but a clever hothead, and he doesn’t desire to be king because he regards himself as more powerful than any king. As events have proved. Still even he feels the need for a break occasionally, and as the others arrive and discuss their options – running away seems to be the preferred one – it’s down to Richard yet again to inspire them all to fight on. And so they do, but not after speaking at length about how hard they’re going to fight. Lord, these men can talk. (Or rather, Will can write speeches but not battles. Yet.)

Richard and Clifford get together for a tussle on the battlefield, but with Warwick and others arriving Clifford runs off. Richard claims Clifford as his own target and Warwick looks slightly frustrated at having to let a potential corpse go. Lots of dashing around; I think there may have been soldiers arriving down ropes at some point – that’s a favourite of Michael Boyd’s. In all this tumult, Henry walks on stage during a brief quiet spell, and comments on the even nature of the battle, where neither side seems to be getting the upper hand. Instead of joining in (the queen probably told him to piss off and stop bothering her while she’s busy) he sits down on a molehill and muses on the easy life of “a homely swain”. He seems to think they have an idyllic time, full of simple pleasures and with no real cares, not like over-worked, over-stressed kings – himself, for example. Now, I love the language, and I sympathise to a certain extent with Henry’s situation but come on, working folk have their troubles too. As is about to be proved.

Young Lex Shrapnel drags a body onto stage, and on closer inspection his character finds it’s the body of his own father whom he has just killed. Naturally he’s upset, and collapses on top of the body. The body then rises up, they turn over and hey presto, Keith Bartlett is now playing a father who is looking at the body of his own son whom he has just killed. It’s a sad scene, as Henry recognise,s and a reminder of the effect these wars have on ordinary people. The father and son then exit and the queen with her followers rushes on. The battle has not gone well for them and they need to leave, quickly. Henry takes his time but still goes with them.

Clifford might have done better to run off earlier as well, as he’s been badly wounded and staggers on to the stage to speak a few last words before fainting in a heap at the front. Edward and his merry band arrive, celebrating their victory, and when Clifford dies, letting out a sigh, Edward rashly promises that whoever it was they would be looked after. Immediately Richard finds it’s Clifford, and they use a couple of the ropes to stand his body up so they can abuse it. As Clifford is already dead they don’t spend too long on that bit, and then Warwick proposes to sail to France and ask for the hand of Lady Bona, the French king’s sister, for Edward. Edward agrees to everything, claiming that he’ll always respect Warwick’s advice. He gives his brothers titles too; to Richard he gives the dukedom of Gloucester, and to George that of Clarence. Richard wants to change them over – he finds Gloucester too ominous – but Edward won’t have it.

Up in the north of England, two men appear on the balcony with crossbows, planning to hunt deer. They’re about to settle down for a cosy chat while they wait for the deer to turn up when Henry arrives below, and they lurk about to hear what he’ll say. He’s busy moaning about his problems again, poor lad, though he does bring us up to date with the plot. Margaret has gone to France to seek help from the French king, so with Warwick there as well it should be an interesting scene. The keepers challenge him, and there’s an exchange between them about loyalty where the king eventually loses out, although it’s a tricky subject at the best of times. I can’t help thinking that the reason Will’s histories were so well received is that the Elizabethan audience knew just what it was like to have divided loyalties and to get confused as to which system they were supposed to be using that day. Seeing that conflict played out (safely!) on the stage must have been important to them in ways we probably can’t imagine. (And I hope we never can.)

Back in London, Edward’s about to take advice from his dick, and this time I don’t mean his brother Richard. Following his successful coronation he’s dealing with the business of state, and a lady petitioner arrives to ask for her husband’s lands to be restored to her. She’s attractive, he’s possibly not had sex for days, and his wife won’t be coming over from France for ages….. His brothers see the way things are going, and withdraw so they can comment on the action from above, while we get to see the action below.

Lady Grey does a good job of dealing with the king. She rebuffs his suggestion of a quickie in return for her lands, and this makes him so keen to have her that he offers her a crown instead. (Now where have we heard that one before? The name Henry springs to mind…) She’s still not all that keen, but Edward simply tells her she’s marrying him and that’s that.

News of Henry’s capture comes along, and the king, his fiancée and all except Richard, leave. He then treats us to his first soliloquy on his desire to be king. It’s an impressive speech, and covers a lot of ground also dealt with in Richard III. I think this was where Jonathan Slinger did a lot of work with the audience, especially when he comments on his unlovely appearance. He certainly gets across Richard’s ambition and readiness to deceive others, as well as his humour, and left me keen to see how he takes it forward to the next play.

Over in France, Margaret pleads with the French king, Lewis, to lend her soldiers to take back Henry’s kingdom from Edward. While she’s still pleading, Warwick arrives and soon he and the queen and also Oxford, one of the queen’s supporters, start to argue about the respective merits of their “kings”. At length Lewis intervenes, but is influenced enough by the bickering that he checks with Warwick that Edward has indeed a good title to the throne. Lady Bona also speaks up, and seems happy to marry Edward. The contract seems to be sealed, much to Margaret’s dismay, when news arrives of Edward’s marriage to Lady Grey.

Up to now I haven’t mentioned the picture frame. When Warwick arrives, it descends from above to show us Edward. When news of his marriage comes, his new wife steps forward to join him and Edward’s expression looked distinctly smug. The news has been delivered by letters, one to each of Margaret, Lewis and Warwick, and their reactions are all different. Margaret’s is difficult to read but she’s obviously nervous, as taught as a bow. Warwick is infuriated as his honour has been trashed by this, and Lewis isn’t too pleased either. Margaret does get in an “I told you so” to Lewis before Warwick has a good long rant, at the end of which he promises to help Margaret restore her husband’s kingdom. Will she accept his offer of help? She can hardly get her words of acceptance out quickly enough! If there were a speed-speaking event in the Olympics, Katy Stephens would have it sewn up – gold for Britain. It was one of the funniest things in tonight’s performance, and there were plenty of contenders. She not only got the lines “Warwick, these words have turned my hate to love; And I forgive and quite forget old faults” out in less than two seconds (you try it!) every word was as clear as a bell. This woman is no fool; she’ll take any help to get her (and her husband) back into power. I also liked the fact that Lady Bona gets to speak at this point. So often the jilted women are voiceless, but she encourages Lewis to support Warwick and Margaret with fighting men. I felt before that it must have been a double blow to her, losing one husband and then seeing another potential match disappear when Warwick agrees to marry his daughter to the young Prince Edward, but tonight it seemed fair enough, especially as she’d expressed a liking for the other Edward.

In London Edward is showing his new queen off to the nobles. Clarence is a bit huffy, and the king challenges him about it. The arguments for and against Lady Grey becoming queen are produced, a messenger reports the response of the French king and the others to the news of the marriage, and ultimately Clarence is so unhappy with the situation that he heads off to join Warwick and to marry his other daughter. Edward checks out the loyalty of his remaining peers and then prepares for war.

Warwick meets up with the Lancastrian supporters, and greets Clarence especially warmly. He plans to sneak up on Edward and capture him as he’s not heavily guarded at the moment. The guards themselves comment on this, before being overwhelmed by Warwick’s men. Edward is taken prisoner and they head off to London, where they set Henry free. I must say, Henry didn’t look too happy at being freed. He clearly enjoyed being a prisoner, with no royal duties to worry about. So much so that he gives command of his realm over to Warwick, while he keeps only the title of king. Warwick, while commending the king’s wisdom in not trying to rule by himself, is surprisingly ready to suggest that Clarence be the one to run the country. Clarence also does the “no, after you” bit, and eventually Henry has to make them both co-regents. We also get to meet the young duke of Richmond at this point, and Henry does his famous prophecy about Richmond becoming king which Richard will refer to in the next play. Lex Shrapnel does his best to look like a young lad, but artistic licence was stretched a bit (the beard didn’t help). Anyway, news of Edward’s escape is brought and they gear up for another battle, sending Richmond away to safety in France.

Edward and his troops arrive at York and are joined by a knight, Sir John Montgomery, who vows to fight for Edward. When he hears that Edward is only claiming his Dukedom at present, he makes to head off, as he’s only interested in fighting for the rightful king (shades of Henry IV here). This, and other arguments, persuade Edward to claim the throne and so they also prepare for battle.

Henry is captured while his troops are elsewhere, Warwick is still ordering his troops about, and then we get a big confrontation between the Yorkists and Lancastrians. Warwick is on the balcony, Edward’s men are on the stage, and then Clarence and the rest come down on the grid at the front of the stage. This is where Clarence changes his mind again and rejoins his brother, without giving any real reason for the change that I can make out. Still, it looks effective as he steps down from the grid, and it obviously changes the balance of power as Warwick’s no longer keen to stay and fight. He runs, but not far, as he’s soon wounded by Edward and left on the stage to comment on his own death. Somerset arrives and tells him that his brother Montague is also dead. This confused me at first, as I could clearly see Montague (Matt Costain) standing there, but then I realised that this was another ghost, and sure enough, he waits till Warwick dies and then the two of them head off into the afterlife beyond the doors.

There’s some to-ing and fro-ing now, as the sides keep fighting, and then Margaret and her son are captured and Edward and his brothers stab the young prince to death with Margaret watching. Richard’s all for killing Margaret too but Edward stops him, so he decides to head off to London instead to take care of some unfinished business.

Henry, in the Tower, has not got long to live but makes the most of his remaining minutes by chiding Richard. It’s been a great performance from Chuk Iwuji. The previous incarnation of these productions had Henry as a naïve pious young man, never really getting to grips with the realities of life. While Chuk started off in similar vein, over the last few nights he’s shown us how much his portrayal has come on. His Henry started as an excited youngster in part 1 and clearly learned a lot through all the ups and downs of his reign. He doesn’t become bitter or twisted, but he does lose his illusions and realises better than anyone except Richard II near his end just how superficial all this kingship is. He’s never managed to play the game well but he does at least see it for what it is, and it’s this sense of awareness that comes across during this final encounter with murderous Richard. Chuk’s expressions conveyed both Henry’s dislike of Richard’s evil nature, and his own piety and nobility. He dies as usual, stabbed several times and gushing blood on to the stage, though nothing like as much as before. (Is Kensington Gore in short supply?) Jonathan Slinger grabs hold of a leg and an arm, and drags Henry’s body off as his was dragged off way back when Richard II was killed, leaving a curved smear of blood across the stage. I think red and white feathers have also been dropped onto the stage at an earlier point, so there’s lots of debris to contend with.

For the end of the final scene, instead of having the rest of the court partying at the back of the stage there’s just Richard in the middle and Edward bringing on the new born prince. Richard takes the baby and stands there, rocking back and forth. He utters the one word, “Now”, and then the lights go out. Massive applause, and lots of people standing, including me.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry VI part 2 – February 2008

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Wednesday 20th February 2008

This is a play which starts with a union, and ends with division. Actually, the division starts within a few minutes of the play’s opening, so it’s not a gradual slide into conflict, but the infighting does become more bitter and twisted as the play goes on.

OK, so Suffolk thinks he’s going to rule through his lover, Margaret, and the various nobles are split into more factions than a Big Brother House. The play opens with the king and his nobles coming onto the stage, and Suffolk presenting Margaret to the king. Henry had his back to us, but even so, I could tell he was as excited as a child on Christmas day. Admittedly, this is one child that would definitely go to church first before opening his presents, but presumably he’d already prayed that day, and now he wanted to get to the unwrapping bit pronto. I noticed that Margaret’s response to the king was different than my text, though his next lines were the same, and I was also aware of the Duchess of Gloucester looking like an advert for Rennie’s. The before bit. This marriage doesn’t sit well with her. I was also looking out for the reactions to the news that Maine and Anjou had been handed over to Margaret’s father, and there was plenty to spot in this area. Only Cardinal Beaufort (Bishop of Winchester as was) seems unruffled by the news – he prefers to take advantage of Humphrey’s discomfort rather than be concerned for England’s welfare.

Once the king, Margaret, Suffolk, the Duchess and her train have left to crown the new queen, Gloucester deliberately closes the doors to speak to the nobles. He really pours his heart out to them, listing all the effort that went into winning France and keeping it, recognising the efforts of all present, and grieving that it’s all been lost, only to be brought up short by the Cardinal pointing out that they still hold France. Partially true, but with Maine and Anjou frittered away, the rest will be difficult to hang on to. Humphrey recognises that he can’t keep his temper now that the Cardinal’s started talking, and leaves. The Cardinal now holds forth on what a dangerous person Humphrey is, suggesting he wants the crown for himself. Buckingham’s comments to Somerset about removing Gloucester are made at the front of the stage, almost as an aside from the other characters. When the Cardinal leaves them, they carry on plotting, pointing out the Cardinal’s faults, and suggesting that one or other of them could take over as Protector once Humphrey is out of the way. These are the Lancastrian faction.

When they leave the stage, the Yorkists are left. Salisbury, Warwick’s father, then sums up the situation, pointing out Humphrey’s good reputation, and the merit and power of his son and York, as well as himself. They agree to work against Somerset and Suffolk to support Gloucester. (These plays do sound like a geography lesson at times.) Before they leave, there’s a nice bit of humour as Salisbury refers to “the main”, meaning the main chance, but Warwick responds as if he’d said Maine, and throws another wobbly. Patrice Naiambana played Warwick very strongly; not as much of a hothead as Hotspur, but still aggressive to the point of humour at times.

Finally, York is left on stage on his own, and confides to us his view that, as the rightful king, he feels the losses in France more keenly than the others. He plans to keep his intentions secret, and support the Nevilles (Salisbury and Warwick) and Humphrey until he finds the right time to make an attempt on the crown. It’s clear from this scene (and this has all been one scene), that bickering, rather than Henry, rules in England. I did feel yesterday that I wasn’t always sure why the various characters had chosen the sides they had, but today it was all clarified. The mounting death toll added to the pressures; as family and friends are bumped off, the desire for revenge supplemented the desire for power, and there’s a strong sense of events spiralling out of control, certainly out of the control of such a weak and reluctant king as Henry.

Scene 2 shows us the ambition of the Duchess of Gloucester. Her husband is wandering around, unable to sleep, and she tries to persuade him to take the crown for himself, first through straightforward suggestion, then through the pretence of a dream. He chides her for her ambition, and she uses the pretext of the dream to pass it off, but we’ve been given a very clear insight into her lust for status – an early version of Lady Macbeth. The king sends for Gloucester, and he heads off, leaving his wife to consult her séance arranger, Hume. He’s procured the services of some notable occult practitioners, and the Duchess rewards him handsomely before leaving. It’s quite a pattern in this play, characters leaving the stage, so that the ones who are left can give us another point of view or more information. On this occasion, Hume tells us that he’s working for the Cardinal and Suffolk, to bring about the downfall of Duke Humphrey through his wife. In the process he slyly infers that both of his employers are “crafty knaves”. It’s one of Jonathan Slinger’s cheerful villain parts, most of which seem to occur in this particular play, and he does it well.

The next scene starts with three men, all scruffy, waiting to present their petitions to the Lord Protector. Unfortunately for them, the queen and Suffolk appear, and they don’t get out of the way quickly enough. The queen and Suffolk ask what’s going on, and are not pleased to find the petitioners would prefer to deal with Gloucester. The queen and Suffolk take their papers, and find one complaint against the Duke of Suffolk himself! Another doesn’t affect them specifically, but Margaret still tears it up, as the man has the cheek to plead to the Lord Protector instead of her. The third man has a complaint against his master for speaking treason. His master has said that Richard, Duke of York is the rightful king, and his apprentice is grassing him up. Mind you, he isn’t the most articulate chap, and there’s some humour in his dialogue, especially when he reports that his “master said …. that the King was an usurer” instead of usurper. This is a more weighty matter, and Suffolk takes advantage of it. The others get short shrift.

Once the proles have been carted off, the queen vents her spleen, beautifully it must be said, but still… She’s just not happy that she’s a queen in name only. She wants to be running the show, and yet everyone else has more power than she does. She’s particularly upset about the Duchess of Gloucester, who flaunts her wealth and status every chance she gets, and sneers at the queen’s poverty. To make her points more effectively, she snuggles up to Suffolk in a way that leaves no doubt he carried out all the parts of the marriage in France before handing her over to Henry. If they weren’t so villainous, they’d make a lovely couple. He reassures her that he’s taking care of the problems, and, well, political plotting is obviously a turn on for a lot of these characters, but with so few women around, this is the only time we see the effect of it.

They do pull apart just before the king arrives on stage, and now we have probably the most important set of arguments of the play, those which start the removal of Duke Humphrey as Protector, the last bulwark against outright civil war. The king can’t or won’t choose between Somerset and York for the Regent of France job. In the general bickering, Margaret speaks up, and is admonished by the Lord Protector because she’s a woman – the man does have some failings after all. Unfortunately he also mentions that the king is old enough not to need her advice, which gives the circling vultures their cue: if the king is old enough to speak for himself, why does he need a Lord Protector? Like a pack of sharks homing in on a stricken whale, they take turns ripping away at his political flesh, until his only option is to leave.

Taking advantage of this, the queen drops her fan, instructing the Duchess to pick it up. When she doesn’t do it immediately, the queen strikes her, and then pretends she mistook her for a waiting woman. Without her husband’s support, the Duchess also leaves, but not without a dire warning to the king, and the threat of revenge. I must mention here that tonight the fan in question had taken on a life of its own. Earlier, when Suffolk and Margaret had seen off the petitioners, she gestures with her fan, and the fan bit flew off the handle and landed on the stage (far right corner from us). Katy handled it well, although she looked on the verge of a giggle or two, and, gentleman that he is, Suffolk rescued it for her when he was next over that way.

Now Gloucester returns, having cooled off by “walking once about the quadrangle,” – delivered so as to get a good laugh – and the sniping between York and his foes resumes over who will be regent in France. Gloucester has declared York to be most fit, but then the question of York’s treachery is raised by Suffolk, and by the entrance of the earlier petitioner whose case Suffolk was most keen to make use of. The petitioner, Peter, is on the balcony to our right, while his master, Horner, whom Peter accuses of treasonous words, is on the stage balcony. York is quick to distance himself from a suspected traitor, while Horner defends himself by pointing out that Peter is just trying to get revenge for being told off about his work. Gloucester steps in to decide the matter – York cannot be regent in France because of this suspicion, so Somerset gets the job, while Peter and Horner will have a fight to determine who’s telling the truth. Nowadays, they’d be selling their stories to the tabloids, but things were much more civilised in Henry’s time. Peter’s a bit upset, though. He’s not a fighting man, and reckons his master will win, so naturally he’s not keen on the idea. Tough.

This is a long scene, and there’s lots going on. I noticed how much less fighting there is in this play compared with Part 1. By this time yesterday we’d had several battles, and lots of (off-stage) dead bodies. Today we have lots of words, but little action. I got the impression, with this being Will’s first staged play (allegedly), that he knew how to do the speeches and arguments, with their set rhetorical forms, but didn’t know how to do battles so well. Even in Part 1, the third in terms of the writing sequence, the battle scenes are more confusing than in later works, such as Henry V, or even Antony and Cleopatra. This may be because he was under pressure to complete his smash hit history trilogy as quickly as possible, or it may be because he didn’t yet appreciate how to make the short, sharp battle scenes flow better. Or he may have been sticking more to the actual history, without adapting it to improve the dramatic effect, or he may have wanted to do it that way, or any combination of these, plus any other reasons you can think of. Anyway, it’s a good start, with lots of political manoeuvring – it reminded me of the Sunday tabloids, with stories of sleaze, corruption and sex scandals galore. All we needed was the violence, and that’s on its way.

Scene 4 shows us the séance organised for the Duchess by Hume. A couple of men, Southwell and Bolingbroke, come through the doors, accompanied by three women, one dressed in white, blindfolded and with her ankles tied. The men greet Hume, and set up the séance. The witch, Margery Jourdain (or Jordan as my text has it, which brings completely different images to mind) has her blindfold removed, and stumbles her way forward across the stage, looking for the right spot to do her work. Near the front, she finds what she wants, and drops some object out of a bag. The others come forward, and one of the chaps trails a wet cloth round her to make a circle. A rope is dropped down, and the women attach Margery to it (I do so want to call her Jordan) by her feet. As it rises up, she’s gradually lifted until she’s hanging upside down. She uses the trick knife to cut her arms, and I assume they were running with blood (this is the gore-fest history cycle) although I couldn’t really see it in the gloom. By this time, the duchess has appeared at the balcony, and passed a piece of paper to Southwell(?), which contains her questions for the spirit being conjured. He reads them out and notes down the answers. As Margery is dangling over the stage, the trapdoors underneath her open, and the Talbots appear, with son John being dangled from a rope himself, and his father just appearing above the stage floor. The actual spirit in the text is called Asnath, but the change works very well, especially as all the ghosts created earlier could be expected to have unfinished business, and to be hanging around waiting to make contact. The prophecies are mostly as in my text – an obscure one about the king and the Duke, Suffolk dying by water, Somerset should avoid castles – but there’s a final one I haven’t found, although I will check elsewhere. As the spirit is descending back into – hell? limbo? the under stage space? – there’s a final question (sorry, didn’t realise I needed to memorise it) to which the mischievous answer is “Gloucester shall be king”. Anyone who knows the future as we do can get a shiver of enjoyment out of that one, even if it is an interloper to the text. In any case, the Duchess is about to be hauled off to prison for her part in the witchcraft, so there isn’t much time for her to be deceived. No, this extra line is for the audience, and to add another link between the plays. Nothing wrong with that, and I certainly found it entertaining. [checked in RSC’s complete works tonight – definitely an invention. 21/2/08]

After this, the Dukes of York and Buckingham burst into the room, and arrest everyone. Buckingham takes the paper, and passes it to York on request. When York has finished commenting, Buckingham asks to have the paper back, so that he can be the one to take it to the king. York hands it over, with reluctance, and after a couple more lines, heads off himself.

The king has been hunting, and now he and his party arrive on stage, where the talk is all of falcons and the like. Gloucester and the Cardinal are there, and in no time they’re having a go at each other in hunting terms. The king tries to calm things down, but they simply stand further back and snipe at each other more discretely, though not so quietly that we can’t hear them. When the king looks round to see what’s going on, they smile and talk as if there’s no problem, then get back to their feud. They even organise a duel without the king knowing, although I wasn’t too clear about this, as the king interrupts this part of their discussion.

Before things get really violent, a crowd appears through the doors, crying “miracle” and suchlike. It’s a ragged band of poor people, accompanying a man on crutches, who claims he’s been healed of blindness at St Alban’s shrine. His wife is with him, and they’re all celebrating the miracle cure. The king questions him, and shows a great deal of sympathy, especially when he finds out the poor man was born in Berwick. (We laughed.) It’s not till Gloucester starts to question him that the truth comes out. He claims to be able to recognise colours that he’s never seen, as he was born blind. They realise he’s just a conman, and to avoid a whipping he forgoes his crutches and leaps over a stool to run away. While this shows Gloucester’s wisdom, the next moment brings news of his wife’s arrest for witchcraft, and the mood changes. Gloucester is ready to leave his wife to whatever justice she deserves, but will it be enough to stop him being ousted? It’s also clear that the king has been sadly disillusioned by this scene with the supposed miracle. It’s not that he’s too naïve, rather that seeing too much villainy saddens him, and makes him want to leave the roughness of ordinary life alone to devote himself to God. It’s part of Henry’s growing up process, which continues on through the next play as well.

York, Warwick and Salisbury all come on now, York carrying a bag. This is where York will explain his title to the crown to the other two (and us) by means of stones. He dumps the stones on the ground, and uses them to lay out the royal family tree, starting with Edward III, the king who liked to bonk. It’s a long-winded description, which gets through enough stones to build a rockery, and also gives us a laugh when Warwick exclaims “What plain proceeding is more plain than this?” Both he and his father are persuaded, and so the secret pact is formed.

Now the Duchess of Gloucester faces judgement. Henry sentences her to do the public penance bit, and then be exiled internally on the Isle of Man. The witch is for burning, and the accomplices for strangling. One of the poor chaps has been seriously tortured, by the look of him; he’s lying upside down on some kind of trolley, and the others don’t look too good either. Gloucester is naturally upset at his wife’s crime and punishment, and it’s not long before Henry asks for his staff of office. He plans to reign himself, so Gloucester hands it over, and wishes the king well in his government of England.

When he leaves, there’s much rejoicing from the queen and Suffolk.  York reminds them that this is the time appointed for the trial by combat, and so they leave the stage to the combatants. Both Peter and Horner have been drinking, Horner more than Peter, and he’s getting pretty drunk by the time the fight starts. Peter is still nervous, and doesn’t want to do it, but has to defend himself when Horner comes at him. It’s a messy fight. Horner is obviously the better swordsman, but Peter defends himself well, if clumsily, and eventually lands some lucky blows which make Horner stagger. With a bit more luck, Peter knocks Horner down, and he suddenly changes his plea to guilty. I felt there was a suggestion that the Duke of York may have promoted the drinking himself, as he was worried what Horner might come out with, but I may have been mistaken – I can’t see anything in the text to support it, although it could have been implied in the acting. The king is content that the outcome is fair, and based on God’s justice, and so they leave.

Gloucester appears on the balcony to our right. He’s looking for his wife as she completes her public penance, so that he can speak to her before she’s off to exile. When she comes on, she’s wearing a tatty white robe with some sheets of paper pinned to it, her hair is a mess, and all in all it’s not the smartest outfit the costume department have ever produced. She’s a bitter woman; not only has she lost the regal position she believed was hers, but she’s been made a public laughing stock as well. Gloucester tries to persuade her to be patient, but that’s not in her nature, and she makes her feelings quite clear. Gloucester is summoned to the parliament, but not before she’s warned him to be careful of his own life. He’s a sweet innocent babe compared to her; he thinks he has to do something wrong to be at risk of execution. Hasn’t he been watching these plays?

At the Parliament, Henry’s courtiers, beginning with the queen and Suffolk, lay into Humphrey for all they’re worth. Henry doesn’t believe them, and for once he actually speaks up for himself. Somerset arrives to inform them that France is now completely lost, and then the Duke of Gloucester also turns up, and finds himself immediately accused of being a traitor. The charges start with taking bribes, through abuse of his legal powers, and he ends up being put into the Cardinal’s keeping on some unspecified charges which will no doubt be clarified if the case ever comes to court. Henry is hopeful that Gloucester will clear his name, but the Duke, wise at last, realises there’s little chance of that. When he’s taken away, making references to the wolves gathering round the unprotected sheep, I was more aware of vultures circling, looking for the moment to land and start the feast. It doesn’t take long, as Henry, mourning the arrest of Gloucester, leaves the nobles and the queen to handle business. Is this wise? They immediately set about planning Gloucester’s death, and there’s no shortage of willing volunteers to do the deed. The Cardinal offers to sort it all out, and they shake hands satisfied that their biggest danger is out of the way. Nice people.

News comes of rebellion in Ireland, and there’s the usual nonsense to be got through about whether to send York or Somerset. For once, these nobles appear to be able to sort things out for themselves, because it’s not too long before York is given the order, and Suffolk promises to supply him with troops. All leave except York, and he stays to relish his position. He needed troops, he’s getting them. While he’s away, he’s arranged for Jack Cade to stir up trouble in England, which will let York test the waters. Either Cade will be killed, or York can play the hero in dealing with him. A satisfactory outcome, whatever happens.

Suffolk is seen chatting to two men who’ve killed Gloucester, and then Henry turns up, hoping to see his uncle get a fair trial. Suffolk heads in to wake the Duke, and returns with the news that Gloucester is dead. Henry faints, and there’s a mild panic – it’s noticeable that the queen doesn’t rush to help her husband. When he revives, Henry’s quite bitter, for him, about the treachery around him. While he complains, the queen and others are all concern and wide-eyed innocence about the Duke’s passing. Margaret even has a lengthy speech saying how wounded she feels that the king could treat her so harshly. At least she doesn’t pretend to shed any tears.

The news of Gloucester’s death has spread quickly, and now Warwick arrives to warn that the natives are seriously restless about this. Henry sends Warwick to find out how Gloucester died, and he returns with the body, bed and all. He proceeds to do a visual autopsy – it’s not CSI, but he still manages to work out that the Duke was murdered. And it’s clear he believes Suffolk to be responsible for it. Not that Suffolk is going to admit it, and the slanging match goes on for some time. There’s a lovely bit where Warwick claims that the presence of the king “makes me mild”, and then goes on to use language that’s anything but! The commons have their say, and Suffolk is banished by the king, so he and Margaret have to say their goodbyes.

Cardinal Beaufort is the next to die; we see him lying in his own bed, the same one Gloucester had died in, and then being lifted up by a wire. He’s eventually let down, and is joined by Gloucester, and these two old sparring partners seem to be reconciled in the afterlife. The next to join them is Suffolk. His boat is rowed by two figures we see a lot of – Talbot father and son – and Suffolk is soon joining the growing list of dead people wandering around the stage.

The next two characters to come on are wearing fishes heads like masks, a neat segue from the previous scene. They turn out to be two characters who are part of Jack Cade’s rebellion, stirred up by York. Their makeup is distinctive – they have black lips (once they take the fish heads off). There’s a bit of audience participation at this point. They get someone up from the stalls, and bring a briefcase along as well – we’re meant to think it belongs to the audience member. They check out the contents – amongst other things, it has a copy of a play – Richard III by Shakespeare. These characters make impolite comments such as “seen it – it’s rubbish” (Jonathan Slinger makes this comment himself, I think), and then take the audience member off to be executed. Don’t worry, it’s only pretend, and Steve had spotted the backstage staff asking a group of students for a volunteer, as well as planting the briefcase, so no complaints this time.

The Jack Cade section was full of militant hoi-polloi treating people badly and cheering on their leader, who kept making ridiculous promises which come to nothing when the real troops arrive back in England. Cade himself escapes and is killed in a walled garden by a chap called Eden, who takes his head to the king and is rewarded with a knighthood. To be honest, I’ve never seen the point of the Jack Cade interlude, and I suspect it had more meaning in Shakespeare’s day, but this production keeps it lively, and as the ghosts get to wander around to swell the numbers, it’s good fun spotting them as well.

York returns from Ireland with all his troops, and he’s confronted by Buckingham who asks why he’s brought all his men with him. It’s difficult for York to hold back his real intentions, and his passion, but he manages to cover himself by claiming he only wanted to see Somerset put in the Tower for treason, and to put down Cade’s rebellion, which has already been done. Buckingham tells him that Somerset is already in the tower, and York has to go along with this and send his soldiers packing. However, before that can happen, Somerset turns up with the queen, and York realises he’s been duped. So the two sides square up to each other, and the battle begins. The battle of St Albans, as it happens, which the Yorkists win, and ….. But you’ll have to wait for the next play to see how it turns out.

This is a wordy play, with less action than the others, but still very enjoyable. Again I was aware of the political manoeuvring, and the personal hostility that was based on so many people having a claim to the throne. Ever since Richard II was deposed, there’s been nothing but trouble. I was also aware of how much these performances have come on from a year ago. The detail is amazing, and there seem to be more and more connections between the events and the characters of each play. I’m glad we gave ourselves more time to enjoy them this time round, and I’m looking forward to completing the set over the next couple of nights.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Henry VI part 1 – February 2008

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Tuesday 19th February 2008

Now that we’ve seen the rest of the cycle, these productions make more sense than before, although they were good already. Henry V appearing on the balcony at the start of this play, with his coffin being lowered into the pit, then climbing down into it headfirst, was a more powerful image this time around. From the Winter School, we learned that his costume had changed, to reflect the actual costume used in Henry V, and this definitely helped. In general, I felt the production had loosened up a bit, with everyone being more expressive in their roles. I found the final scenes, with Suffolk wooing Margaret, much funnier than I remembered. I also noticed that Richard Duke of York, at the end of the flower picking scene, looked uncomfortable as Warwick cheerfully predicted ten thousand deaths – an echo of his troubled reign as Henry IV?

The play opens with a paean of praise to Henry V, the king they’re just burying. This gets things off to a bad start, as it’s clear they’re missing him already. The bickering hardly holds off for the funeral – in no time the Duke of Gloucester and Bishop of Winchester are at each other’s throats – literally so in a later scene. What comes across is the personal animosity between the men. Perhaps the Duke, as Lord Protector, has the edge in being justified, but on the whole it’s pretty even, and pretty vicious.

The French dauphin is, of course, the one who upset Henry V so much with his balls (tennis, that is), and is still played wonderfully for comic effect by John  Mackay. He swirls on, with shorter coat tails this time, but still with a magnificent head of blond locks, followed by his nobles, likewise preening themselves to the verge of a hernia. These parts certainly seem more effective – I was much more aware of Joan before, but now they all stand out. Joan herself seems livelier, and the fight scene with the Dauphin was entertaining. I don’t remember if we see Joan’s three ladies in red in this scene or later – they weren’t so noticeable to me this time, I suspect due to the different angle.

For one scene, the Dauphin, Reignier and Alençon come on dramatically, posing as for some action movie, only to scuttle away from the fighting. John Mackay also has the nerve to show us his bottom (anatomical, rather than the character from Dream), as the French leaders sneak out of Orleans after the English retake it.

Talbot was as powerful as before. This time, I remembered his trick with his sword. While most of the English characters hold their swords in front of them, point upwards like a cross, Talbot lifts his hands up and strokes the sword over his head to bring it in front of him (at least, that’s what it looks like). Once he’s dead, I noticed the other Englishmen were doing much the same thing – a belated tribute, perhaps.

The scenes showing us the real start to the Wars of the Roses were also good, though this time I felt that perhaps Richard of York would have been better to get the information from Mortimer before arguing with someone else over his right to the crown. Still, it sets the situation out fairly clearly – we will get a more detailed explanation in tomorrow’s play – and is sufficient to explain the animosity between Somerset and York which results in neither of them helping Talbot, leading not only to his death, but that of this son. There’s a nice exchange between Talbot père et fils, where they bat lines back and forth, arguing over which of them should fly the battle and certain death. It’s nicely done, and the repetitive rhythm adds a touch of humour.

With all these strands in place, it only remains to show us the beginnings of the loss of France, which is what this play’s about. I was very aware this time that, according to Shakespeare, the battle between the French and English was evenly matched on the whole. Although Joan helped the French to some victories, the English kept winning towns back. It’s a war that could have gone on even longer, had English rivalries and factions not intervened. The mealy mouthed way both York and Somerset deny their assistance to Talbot (via Lucy) is a perfect example of the way some politicians and other leaders will happily see innocents crash and burn rather than give an inch of help to the opposition. And all the time they blame the other. I liked the staging for this, with York descending on the grid, and then Somerset appearing later on the balcony, emphasising how far apart these men are (and yet, how similar).

The peace negotiations were more entertaining for me this time around. Our position gave me a better view of the French and their machinations – they’re such naughty boys. With peace came the opportunity to ransom prisoners, and having taken the entire audience prisoner, Suffolk is about to sort us out when Margaret appears. This was a pretty quick change for Katy Stephens, as she’s just been burned to death as Joan, but she really scrubs up well. Again, I was more aware of the details in this scene, with Margaret trying to find out from Suffolk what her ransom will be, and him talking to us about how he fancies her, but wait he has a wife, bugger, OK he’ll woo her for the king, and then …… I liked the way she retaliated when he did finally decide to engage her in conversation, by making her own asides. She also shows her ambition and power at the very end, as she steps out of the frame, and walks about a bit before striding off as the lights go down. A right little minx, this one.

I was a bit surprised to realise how late in the play we first see Henry VI himself. He doesn’t come on till Act 3 scene 1, for his coronation, and to welcome the Duke of York back into the fold. I felt this performance was even more child-like – enthusiastic and eager, a royal puppy – and fitted in well with him being persuaded so easily to ditch his betrothal to the French King’s daughter and marry Margaret instead. I also want to mention the earlier scene with the mayor of London parting the Duke of Gloucester and the Bishop physically, and ordering them away. Matt Costain did a very nice mayor, with a few moves at the end, and the eyes gesture to someone in the audience.

In fact, the whole performance included the audience much more than before. We were involved at just about every opportunity, collectively or individually, though fortunately no one was taken off to be executed. (Must check what seats we’re in tomorrow – Row F, that’s a relief!). I was also conscious that this is a prequel, as Will had written the other two before finishing off the trilogy with this one. As a result, some of the play only makes sense if you know the story continues. In particular, the play ends with Suffolk’s declaration that he’ll be running things once Henry marries Margaret – pointless unless there’s more to come. However, as prequels go, it’s a good one. I’m not sure how well it would stand on its own, though, and as these plays have only been done in combination in my time, I’m not sure I’ll ever find out.

What else? Richard of York does the hunchback thing when Joan’s captured and is trying to use her magic. Henry V gets out of his grave when Bedford, with only one arm, opens it up, and the ghost heads into Rouen to recapture it. Bedford was also the first dead person to get up and walk off, though there will be plenty more this week. Incidentally, the text I have makes no reference to his arm being missing – here Joan picks up and displays a severed arm, and Bedford’s arm is clearly truncated. The revival of Henry V is also a Michael Boyd invention, though nothing wrong with that.

The ladder and rope work all seemed to be smoother this time, and less intrusive, although as we were slightly under the circle that may have helped to lessen the effect. I did like the pulling down of the blue ribbons of cloth. The Bastard of Orleans keeps rushing on, yelling his head off, and scaring the Dauphin. So when he takes off his helmet, the Dauphin says “Bastard. Of Orleans.” Nice touch.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Speed-The-Plow – February 2008

10/10

By David Mamet

Directed by Matthew Warchus

Venue: Old Vic Theatre

Date: Saturday 16th February 2008

Who knew this could be so much fun? Steve had some memories of seeing this play years ago; I couldn’t remember it at first, but vague recollections drifted in, especially during the second scene. Neither of us remembered it being so strong and so funny. Shows what you can do with two top class actors, who also have the benefit of years of experience of the movie business. I’m sure they will have drawn on that a lot during rehearsals.

The set was all curves. Two sandy coloured walls curved away to the rear of the stage, where a glass brick curved wall formed the back of the office. There was a sleek desk, fancy black chairs on wheels, which travelled about the office almost as much as the characters, a sofa, and stacks of papers. A ladder seemed incongruous at first, until we learned that the office was being redecorated.

For the second scene, in Gould’s house, another glass brick wall is slotted in front of the other one to create a drinks area. A large round sofa with lots of cushions is about the only other thing on stage, although there are lots of plants along the top of the walls – it’s a garden room. The third scene takes us back to the office, and in between times, a screen drops down with lines from the book being typed across it.

The story is simple. Charlie Fox (Kevin Spacey) brings a film deal to Bobby Gould (Jeff Goldblum). Both men think it’s a great prospect and will make them rich. There’s a delay in getting the studio boss to approve it, and naïve innocent Karen, Gould’s temporary secretary, puts the case for another film, a worthier one, based on the book Gould gave her to read. The book is about radiation, and how it’s killing us all, or helping us to evolve into higher beings, or something. Anyway, everyone dies, which means even I can see it’s never going to make it to the screen (unless some renowned European director did an art-house version which could become a cult classic – you know the sort of thing, seen by only ten people but quoted by everyone as a seminal influence). It’s a no-hoper, a “courtesy read”. But by dint of some passionate and persuasive arguments, and, of course, sex, the young woman wins the day. Or does she?

The first scene is almost entirely hyperactive. Gould starts the scene by trying to fend off Fox, thinking he’s just out to get a favour from his newly promoted friend, but once he actually listens to Fox’s proposal, he’s blown away. Fox has managed to get some fantastic actor to agree to “cross the street” to make some prison buddy movie with this studio, and the odds are it will a big hit. Both men will have their names above the titles as co-producers, and they take some time to fantasise about spending the shedloads of money they expect to earn. It’s an interesting relationship. Both men talk at the same time, and repeat themselves and each other constantly, but through all this camouflage I could see the relationship taking shape. They’ve known each other for many years, but with the pressures of the business no one can really commit to any sort of friendship, as they may have to drop someone in the shit at a moment’s notice. The cement in this bond is the money, and perhaps more importantly the kudos that will come from a major box office success. The secretary’s appearance is mainly to let the other two explain the rules of the movie making game to the uninitiated in the audience. She’s a symbolic rather than real character, with an innocence and naivety that would be ludicrous if not played well, but here Laura Michelle Kelly carries it off competently. The absurdity of a complete ingénue being employed as secretary to a senior movie executive was still there, but her sincerity carried the day.

The second scene in Gould’s house has a completely different quality. The manoeuvring is on a different level. The pace is much slower, and I got that Gould is expecting to get Karen into bed. He seems to treat it as a perk of the job, something he does by reflex, with no great interest in the woman herself, although he’s learned enough to come across all sincere and caring and willing to listen – that is what they call foreplay, isn’t it? She, on the other hand, seems to be sincerely keen on this book she’s been given to read. It struck a chord with her, and she appears to believe it’ll make a much more interesting film than the standard prison buddy affair Gould is lining up. She does the Anne Boleyn thing of saying no long enough to win her argument, then clinches the deal with sex. No wonder some people think women rule the world.

Next day, when the meeting with the studio boss is about to happen, Fox turns up again at Gould’s office to learn that he’s changed his mind. Fox freaks out, attacks Gould, who has to change his shirt afterwards, and does everything he can to make Gould see reason and take the buddy movie to the boss. It’s like watching a drowning man clutching at verbal straws, and it’s an amazing performance by Kevin Spacey. This is Fox’s one big chance at the big time, and he’s not going to let it escape. Eventually he manages to cast doubt on Karen’s integrity, and gives Gould cause to consider whether he’s doing the right thing or not. Finally, commercial sense wins the day, and Gould and Fox are back to being partners again. It was touch and go – these guys really took it to the wire – but normal service has been resumed.

Even as I’m typing this, I can remember how exhausting and exhilarating it was to watch. So much energy was coming off the stage that it was impossible to look away. Jeff Goldblum held the central character together brilliantly. He could be withholding, manic, childishly gleeful, sexually seductive and powerful, all in the space of an hour or so. I was very aware of how this guy’s mind was working, trying to avoid being used, trying to figure out how he could use others, checking to see what was in it for him, and all the time with an expression of regret that he wasn’t living a more profound life, that he was stuck amongst the muck and mire of the all-devouring commercial movie monster. It was an impressive performance, matched by Kevin Spacey as Fox, who took hyperactive to new levels. He threw himself about the stage, constantly moving and almost constantly talking. The dynamic between the two men was beautifully portrayed, and although Karen’s part isn’t as well written, Laura Michelle Kelly did well to keep up with these two. The audience were suitably appreciative, and I don’t expect to see a better production anytime soon. Nor one as good, probably.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me