Henry VI Trilogy

William Shakespeare

Courtyard Theatre, Stratford

(2006)

Review by J. D. Atkinson

It seems to be an unwritten law of British theatre that, every ten years or so, the Henry VI trilogy must be performed either as a two-part adaptation or in its entirety, revealed to be a riveting theatrical experience, and then completely ignored for another decade. This revival comes a mere five years after its premiere and only a few months after Northern Broadsides' Wars of the Roses - a veritable frenzy of activity by Henrican standards!

A lot of water has flowed under Clopton Bridge since Michael Boyd's Henry VI trilogy opened at the Swan Theatre in 2000. Who then could have prophesied the enormous changes the RSC is currently undergoing? Now the plays are back as part of the Complete Works Festival with a (mostly) new cast and at a new venue - the Courtyard Theatre.

The Courtyard will become the RSC's main house when the Royal Shakespeare Theatre closes for redevelopment next year. Although the building is a temporary one it doesn't have a temporary feel - a spacious foyer, decorated in red and black, leads to an auditorium with a thrust stage, excellent acoustics and sightlines and comfortable seats. The effect is of the Swan writ large and gives a good indication of what the new RST will be like.

It's hard to understand the rather apologetic tone taken by some of the RSC's publicity material with regard to the theatre's technical limitations, particularly since this revival is just as inventive in its use of space as the original. Actors sink into the grave, emerge from hell, descend from the flies and swarm up ropes and ladders - there is never a dull moment in which the audience can reflect on the wildly uneven quality of the material. Despite some feeble verse and empty rhetoric it's easy to see why the plays, which are amongst Shakespeare's earliest works, were still putting Jacobean bums on seats in the period of his mature tragedies.

Of course, the trilogy presents us with two diametrically opposed contenders for the role of tragic hero - King Henry VI (Chuk Iwuji), the pious grandson of the usurper Henry IV, and the Duke of York (Clive Wood), the rightful heir to the throne and father of the equally usurping Richard III (Jonathan Slinger). Starting with the funeral of Henry V Shakespeare condenses the deeds of two generations into a cavalcade of blue-blooded thugs, Machiavellian intriguers, heroic Englishmen and absurd foreigners. Although each play stands on its own the best way to see them is to attend an all-day marathon. By the end of the evening the numbness of your nether regions will be more than compensated for the nine-hour workout your emotions have received.

One of Boyd's most striking innovations is a new character, the Keeper, who ushers the dead into the afterlife with more dignity than most of them shuffled off this mortal coil. The great double door through which they exit proves to be a disturbingly permeable barrier between the living and the dead; the murdered Duke of Gloucester (Richard Cordery) returns to ensure that the villainous Cardinal Beaufort dies unabsolved, and in a weird but brilliantly successful scene the angry ghosts of Talbot (Keith Bartlett) and his son take the place of the pirates who kill the Duke of Suffolk (Geoffrey Streatfield).

Although Clive Wood, Richard Cordery and Keith Bartlett reprise the roles they played in 2000, the rest of the cast are new to the production and in some cases to the RSC. In the title role Chuk Iwuji is a worthy successor to David Oyelowo, Geoffrey Freshwater is a vulpine Cardinal Beaufort and John Mackay doubles as an effete Dauphin - who makes his entrance to the strains of what I can only describe as a medieval bossa-nova - and Jack Cade, played as a psychotic clown (the toe-curling audience participation in this scene, which I don't remember from the original production, is the only false note in the show). There are fine performances from Forbes Masson (Alençon/Edward), Maureen Beattie (Duchess Eleanor) and Patrice Naiambana (Warwick). Amongst the smaller roles Alexia Healey is a heart-rending Rutland, and the velvet-voiced Ann Ogbono makes her mark as the Countess of Auvergne/Lady Elizabeth Gray.

Bearing in mind the critical and popular acclaim heaped on the original Henries I was surprised to see so many empty seats at the Courtyard. What on earth are people waiting for? This is a superb production - and if you miss it you may have to wait another ten years for the next one…

The three parts of "Henry VI" play in repertory until 21st October. They return on 9th February 2007, playing in repertory with "Richard III" until 17th February.