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October 25, 2006

The Terrors of the Bear-Garden: Henry VI, Parts I, II & III - RSC at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

Posted by Lincoln Allison

William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Parts I, II & III
directed by Michael Boyd
Royal Shakespeare Company
performed as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works Festival (April 2006 - April 2007)
Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 7th July - 21st October 2006
Returning in 2007

During the time of the civil wars between York and Lancaster, England was a perfect bear-garden and Shakespeare has given us a very lively picture of the scene.
Thus William Hazlitt's rather twee summary of Shakespeare's only three-parter. The more common critical reaction when the trilogy is performed is to remark that, though they are almost completely devoid of the great speeches and complex characters which typify Shakespeare's greatest work, nevertheless they are immensely dramatic when seen in sequence, full of action, incident, horror and evil.

I saw the last production which was part of the RSC's Millennium Project and was much caught up in the action. That was in the intimate atmosphere of the Swan Theatre: a Lancastrian red rose (appropriately) landed on me in one scene and a helmet in another and an old gentleman threw a fit in the seat in front of me which stopped the play. This time I was taking the bear-garden neat, all three plays in one day.

We start with Henry V crawling into his own grave. We end, twelve and a half hours later, with the brilliant addition of a single word to the text, used also in Boyd's production of the play in 2000. Instead of ending on a falsely optimistic note with Edward IV saying

For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy,
we end with his brother, the future Richard III, alone on stage cradling his infant nephew and saying to the audience
Now . . . .
On cue they rise to their feet clapping, cheering and muttering
. . . is the winter of our discontent . . . .
In between we have been through the ultimate nightmare. England has been defeated by an army led by a mad shepherdess; London has been taken over by a bunch of Gillingham fans intent on killing anyone who can read; screaming infants have been slowly and menacingly murdered and their blood used to daub their horror-stricken parents. Penises have been cut off and shoved in mouths, apprentices forced to fight their masters to the death and there have been battles which left the stage awash with blood which then soaks the trains of those who are dressing fancy and trying to look regal. Merrie Olde England, eh? What a day out!

The cheering at the end of Michael Boyd's production is tribute to his defiance of theatrical gravity. There are no heroes in this, only villains, and no conclusions: no sooner have the Lancastrians perpetrated an atrocity than the Yorkists come up with something worse; when one side wins a victory, the other side are soon back with French help or an army from Ireland to re-establish the balance of chaos.

The king, played by Chuk Iwuji, in an exact reprise of David Oyelowo's Henry in 2000, has a kind of wimpy, unworldly goodness, but it is precisely the sort of goodness which is worse than useless in these circumstances. Henry V's brother, Duke Humphrey, played by the RSC's greatest current stalwart, Richard Cordery, is a half-decent bloke with a wicked wife. Keith Bartlett as Talbot and Lex Shrapnel as his son are at least honest warriors with the right to invoke the name of Henry V (which everybody else invokes anyway).

But after that, it is villainy replaced by hyper-villainy. If you thought Katy Stephens' Joan La Pucelle was a bad girl, severing arms and spraying her defeated enemies with the blood from the stumps, you realise she was a mere loyal enthusiast when you meet the same actress's Margaret of Anjou, murderous and devious, playing her sharp good looks for all they are worth. A good performance, this, at her very best when manipulating the court with the help of her slimy lover-mentor, the Earl of Suffolk (Geoffrey Streatfield), but slightly stretched in a large theatre by the thinness of her voice.

Patrick Naiambana as Warwick, the reliable Clive Wood as York, Keith Dunphy as Clifford and a host of others all offer us villainy and treachery on an ascending scale. But the show is stolen, from the second half of Part II onwards, by Jonathan Slinger's Richard, the scariest thing I have ever seen on a Stratford stage, the definitive psychopath for whom lust and the lust for power are the same thing and who can make you feel sorry for him and fear him and realise that he must be destroyed all in the same rasping breath:

Then, since this earth affords no joy to me,
But to command, to check, to o'erbear such
As are of better person than myself,
I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown . .
[Part III, Act III, Scene ii]
was lisped to a terrified, rather nice-looking lady in the front row.

There were other forms of audience participation. Two of Jack Cade's henchmen pull what turns out to be a fake bank manager from the audience, then take a genuine member of the audience and order him to decapitate the bank manager. The chap chosen in our case flexed his muscles and began a run-up. The resulting improvisation ("Hang on we'll do the jokes!") got the laugh of the day.

I was slightly disappointed by Jack Cade's rebellion in Part II, inevitably comparing it with Jake Nightingale's menacing interpretation in the more intimate atmosphere of the Swan six years ago. John Mackay, who had been an excellent foppish Dauphin in Part I, was convincingly loopy, but not really menacing. This is, after all, the grammar school boy's nightmare, where the nastiest of the oiks take over the town - nothing whatsoever to do with the real Jack Cade - and Mackay seemed merely eccentric. I was also disappointed by the announcement of Policy Number One ("Let's kill all the lawyers"). Nobody cheered, leaving me wondering how many solicitors were in the auditorium.

But why is all this so uplifting? Why did I feel so damn good at the end? Why did we, the audience, become a community, touching strangers, saying "Wow" and "My God" and rushing to congratulate the members of the cast who circulated amongst us? It is mainly, I think, the pure theatricality that Michael Boyd gives us, without fuss or pretension: blood where there should be blood, costume where there should be costume, real fighting, real passion, even though most of the passion here is evil in nature. The battles are pacy - collages of smoke, blood, drums, running men, metallic clashes, ropes and ladders. They are not the best bits, but they are never going to be.

And there is a philosophic point. Accelerating feuds, a political elite that has lost all vision and virtue and runs on naked ambition, endless foreign wars . . . . the parallels do not need to be laboured and there are no unnecessary references. How far are we ever from this nightmare. Five years? Ten? This is Hobbes-on-stage, the longing for legitimate authority and the need for those who will give loyal service to such authority almost tangible. The hope expressed when Henry VI meets the young Richmond, the future Henry VII -

Make much of him, my lords, for this is he
Must help you more than you are hurt by me
[Part III, Act IV, Scene vi]
- may be very politic for William Shakespeare, but he has no difficulty in persuading us to share it.

Two final comments. First, the now-familiar presence of actors of African extraction. I have long since ceased to think of this as "political correctness" and come to accept, not only that it is only fair to black actors, but also that it adds some mysterious quality, helping to put us in the parallel RSC-universe where Henry VI might have been black even though his relatives are white. It has worked particularly well with the two actors who have played the eponymous role, both of whom have brought an other-worldly fragility to the part.

Then there is the theatre, my first experience of the "temporary" Courtyard, a warehouse theatre-in-the-round correctly described by the man in front of me as "An urban-industrial Swan". It will never be as good as the Swan, which Sir Anthony Sher says is the best in the world and which is exactly the right size, but it is still a good deal better than the main theatre - or 90% of London theatres, for that matter.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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