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

Henry VI part 1 – February 2007

6/10

By: WIlliam Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Boyd

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 9th February 2007

I’d forgotten so much about these plays, and this production, that I felt I was watching these for the first time tonight, until I recognised some of the things that I hadn’t enjoyed so much first time round. Firstly, the music. I liked it most of the time, but occasionally it continued to drone on over and behind the dialogue, making it harder to hear what was going on. The smoke machine was fully warmed up by the end of the evening as well, as everything from wisps of mist to full-on fog rolled out of various apertures throughout the performance. I remember being practically choked by the fog at the start of Richard III many years ago – fortunately, this wasn’t so bad.

I also recognised many of the actors who performed tonight, including Keith Bartlett as Talbot, who presumably remembered a lot of his lines from playing the part last time round. Jonathan Slinger, who’s playing Richard III later in the cycle, was preparing us for that role with a bit of limp and the suggestion of a shoulder, as he played the Bastard of Orleans – an unfortunate name, I always feel. Clive Wood, as Richard, Duke of York, also hinted as his son’s deformity during the scene with Joan of Arc, by adopting the crookback and grimacing – both nice touches. I shall watch for more hints during the next two plays, when Richard of Gloucester makes his appearance.

The set we saw during the Two Gents production (many moons ago now) was indeed the Henrys set – very industrial looking, with a large spiral staircase encased in a metal tube centrally placed towards the back of the stage. It allowed for a balcony, and the two big doors at the bottom were regularly thrown open and clanged shut to set scenes for us. One staging that was repeated through this play, and, I suspect, the others, was to have a phalanx of people standing in the doorway, with lights behind throwing them into silhouette, giving an impression of a mass of people. They entered slowly, demonstrating the power of the particular group, and in the case of Henry VI’s coronation in France, this emphasised the bitter discord amongst the English nobility, as the group breaks apart suddenly and descends instantly into vicious bickering. Poor Henry, young as he is, does all he can to broker a peace deal, but only ends up making things worse. Firstly, he picks one of the faction’s symbols to try to encourage both sides to overlook their differences – a tricky manoeuvre at the best of times – and then he expects two enemies to work together to further England’s interests in France, without staying to keep an eye on things himself. It’s an excellent portrayal of how a weak ruler can make problems worse rather than better. Reminds me of last night’s King of Hearts, where the Prime Minister understood the need to have a hated right-hand woman, someone who could get tough on dissenting voices within his own party – Henry could have done with one of those.

The Joan of Arc storyline is always a little disappointing from my point of view, but I can understand why Shakespeare wrote it as he did, especially given the nature of the religious troubles at the time. He couldn’t very well have portrayed a French Catholic heroine in his plays – the public, and very probably the Lord Chamberlain, might not have appreciated it. Still, I do find it difficult to accept this version of her story, and tonight that was made worse by the warfare element. I accept that this is exactly what Shakespeare’s writing about, but perhaps our recent and current involvement in war is making me less willing to enjoy representations of the “glory” of war on stage. Talbot is an heroic character, true, and does represent many good virtues – loyalty, unselfish service to his King and country, heroism in battle, etc. – but it’s hard at the moment to be enthralled by battle stories, winning or losing.

The political element is much easier to take, although I was finding it hard to hear the lines tonight – one of the problems of a large thrust stage with so many characters milling about. Geoffrey Freshwater is playing a wonderfully villainous Bishop/Cardinal, whose feud with the Lord Protector will, I fear, end in tears for all concerned. The Lord Protector may be less at fault, but he’s not very effective at controlling the malicious cleric. In fact, he’s not much cop at controlling anything. He sets up a perfectly good match for the King, only to have it overturned once Suffolk seduces Henry with his descriptions of Margaret, daughter of the King of Naples and Suffolk‘s intended mistress. Margaret, doubled with Joan, is a saucy temptress. Looking like a 40s vamp, she’ll be more than a match for most of these men.

I liked the three women who played Joan’s “fiends”. They wore simple red dresses, and emitted strange, low humming sounds, with some crooning noises, which were disturbing and beautiful at the same time. They also joined in the fighting, lining up behind Joan and following her movements as she fenced with first the King and then Talbot, indicating the extra strength she received from them. They also assisted in “persuading” the Duke of Burgundy to re-enlist with the French forces.

There was copious use of ladders, trap doors, and a lowered platform to create different spaces. Sometimes I feel this goes too far, and distracts from the performances. For example, when Talbot’s men swing in from the sides of the gallery, they pair up, hanging over the middle of the stage, and to keep them together, one attaches his line to the other’s, so they can point their weapons. It looks really clumsy. Then, to release themselves, they have to unclip the lines and swing back again – all fine from a health and safety point of view, but not much cop from a dramatic perspective.

Chuk Iwuji was good as Henry, all youth and innocence, coupled with good intentions. I enjoyed seeing John Mackay again. He played Sir Andrew Aguecheek in the last Twelfth Night, and made him both comic and sympathetic. Here he’s the Dauphin, and it’s clear this Dauphin is anything but in charge in France. Much like Henry in England, in fact – they’re well matched in a strange way.

Our seats were fine, and very comfortable – which is just as well, as we’re in the same ones for all four productions! Roll on the rest of the cycle.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me