Henry VI part 2 – February 2008


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