Henry VI, Part 3

William Shakespeare

Young Vic

(2001)

Review by Philip Fisher

The final part of the RSC’s production of the rarely performed Henry VI is a great success.

It starts amidst great confusion as Edward Duke of York is pronounced King. This does not meet with the satisfaction of Henry and a great confrontation takes place. Henry is now a true King and the big question is whether or not he will be willing to give up his Crown for the sake of his country.

He proposes a compromise that pleases nobody. This compromise is completely in character for him since unlike his predecessors (and successor) he is a peaceful, religious man.

The compromise involves the continuation of Henry as King of England in return for which he agrees that the House of York will inherit the kingdom upon his death. Queen Margaret fulminates at this betrayal of her son and cannot accept the disinheritance of her beloved Edward. This is a marital tiff with an awful lot at stake and like so many tiffs between an appeasing husband and a wife that wants to have her way, there can be no happy ending. Both David Oyelowo and Fiona Bell act beautifully in these parts and both have been well cast.

The Queen and her son depart from the King and she raises an army to attack York. This attack is successful and the Queen makes the most of her supremacy to cruelly torture and ultimately kill York. A symbolically red-gowned Charon is appointed to escort the dead from the stage during this play. He is a very busy man!

As the play develops, revenge is very much in the air as well as a vicious sense of cruelty. On one side the Queen and her henchman Clifford are willing to kill little children without compunction while on the other Richard Duke of Gloucester is equally happy to play dirty. Ultimately, there is a duel between Clifford and Richard which, while spectacular, is a little too close to a Russian sabre dance to be fully believable. Whilst there is a lot of swishing and jumping around this seems to be very much for show.

Through all of this, the King steers clear of the violence. However, possibly as a result of his unwillingness to take firm action, he indirectly contributes to the bloodshed.

During one of his finer speeches on the hottest Saturday of the summer, David Oyelowo was just warming up to a fine demonstration of humanity when a member of the audience fainted. He calmly walked over to her and helped her to her feet and into the fresh air. This seemed so much in Henry’s character that one could almost believe that director Michael Boyd had written the lady into his production.

This show of humanity dissipates very quickly as it is followed by the tales of a son who inadvertently killed his father during the war and a father who killed his son. In this way, Shakespeare demonstrates the way in which this civil war affects not only royal families but also the families of ordinary citizens.

Henry is eventually forced to flee and Edward IV "the greatest wooer in Christendom" takes over the throne. He will face many problems in trying to retain his position. Perhaps the greatest of all is summed up by comments from his brother Richard that "I can smile and murder while I smile".

This wonderful play continues with factional fighting between various groups as Edward tries to obtain support in France but succeeds in offending King Louis by turning down Louis’ sister as Queen of England.

Edward captures Margaret and young Prince Edward and executes the latter. This reduces Margaret to bitter depression and she begs for death. As this play comes to a close, Richard meets Henry who is becoming something of a seer. First, he has predicted that Henry, Earl of Richmond, will eventually become King and bring the country together and now he suggests that the country and its people will rue the moment that Richard was born.

Michael Boyd finishes the sequence with a gory moment of symbolism as Richard takes a white rose and soaks it in blood foretelling the death of his brother which is now not too far off.