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