Shakespeare's History Cycle (2)

Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3 – Richard III
Royal Shakespeare Company
The Roundhouse
(2008)

Henry VI production photo

Shakespeare’s History Cycle, directed by Michael Boyd, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s artistic director, is one of the great productions of twenty-first century, a marathon for actors and audiences alike and as important a landmark in the RSC’s history as Peter Hall and John Barton’s production of The Wars of the Roses was back in 1963.

The Henry VI trilogy and Richard III trace the power struggle between the Houses of York and Lancaster. The characters for the most part are inhuman, execrable, and ruthless. The stage is littered with bloody corpses and severed heads.

The social disintegration that the civil war brings is vividly symbolised in a battle scene in which a father discovers he has killed his son and a son discovers he has killed his father.

Nobody would want to see the three parts of Henry VI on their own but seen together on one day they have an undeniable theatrical impact and when they are acted – as they are here – as part of an eight play history cycle beginning with Richard II and ending with Richard III, they become essential viewing for anybody interested in Shakespeare.

34 actors play 264 roles.

Part 1, immensely popular in Shakespeare’s day and the least accessible of the trilogy, proves very accessible in Boyd’s excitingly staged and fast-moving production, which uses ladders, ropes, trapezes and an athletic cast to terrific advantage in the stylized yet vigorous battle scenes.

Henry, who came to the throne when he was nine months old, is far too passive, far too naïve and far too saintly to be able to exercise any authority over the warring nobles. When Boyd first staged the trilogy he set a precedent by casting a black actor as Henry. The role is now played by Chuk Iwuji.

Part 1 is dominated by Keith Bartlett’s performance as Lord Talbot, the brave and gallant soldier whose heroism symbolizes all that is best about England. There is a memorable scene when he and his son (Lex Shrapnel) plead with each other to leave the battlefield at Bordeaux, knowing that to stay means certain death for both.

Part 1 is interesting for its portrayal of Saint Joan (Kathy Stephens), who, seen through biased English eyes, is no saintly simple shepherd girl, but a sophisticated witch and whore.

Part 2 is usually considered the best play in the trilogy, but the political intrigues are not as gripping as they have been in the past productions. The scenes with Jack Cade in particular are played for far too much farcical comedy. John McKay is a very physical actor and he brings to Cade the same sort of strutting physicality he brings to all his roles. The rebellious crowd behaves as if they were a commedia dell’arte troupe.

Richard Cordery as the Lord Protector – a man of honour, truth and loyalty – qualities singularly absent during the War of the Roses – holds Parts 1 and 2 together by sheer presence and gravitas. Cordery towers physically and morally above everybody else. His chief enemy is the Bishop of Winchester, acted by Geoffrey Freshwater as the hammiest of villains.

Margaret of Anjou (Katy Stephens), who marries Henry, is one of the great roles for women in Shakespeare. Wanton, obdurate and remorseless, she has a memorable scene when she taunts the Duke of York with a napkin soaked in the blood of his dead son and forces him to wear a paper crown. The final image of her is lugging the bones of her murdered son in a sack which she empties at the feet of the court.

Clive Wood’s Duke of York looks like he could be a contender for the English throne. Patrice Naiambana’s Earl of Warwick has presence but his artificial diction is not always easy to understand.

Part 3 has the best poetry in the trilogy and is chiefly worth seeing for its introduction to the Duke of Gloucester, murderer of Henry VI, and best known as the future Richard III. He has some splendid soliloquies.

Richard III– a great role for great actors - is the longest role in Shakespeare after Hamlet. The play is regularly acted on its own and has often been acted in modern dress, most notably by Ian McKellen on stage and film. But when it is staged as the climax to a cycle of eight plays it is distinctly off-putting to find it being acted in a totally different key to the rest of the cycle. The modern dress jars.

Richard, the ultimate Machiavellian villain, physically repulsive and revelling in his deformity, is a born actor, a virtuoso performer, full of self-hatred. Jonathan Slinger’s rooting hog – the ugliest psychopath since Simon Russell Beale – has a distinctive lolloping limp and his own theme tune. A drum beats whenever he appears and he rocks back and forth to its beat.

Richard’s scene with the Mayor of London, when the SAS literally drop in, is way over the top and for Slinger to play the nightmare before the Battle of Bosworth in his underpants is definitely not a good idea. His performance, totally lacking in any seductive charm, is, nevertheless, riveting.

Julius D’Silva’s sinister Catesby is perfect for a modern production. So, too, are the comic murderers of Clarence, but their music hall double act is out of kilter with the rest of the other plays.

A memorable feature of the production is the way the ghosts of the murdered regularly appear and re-appear throughout the cycle and most unexpectedly so during Richard’s coronation when it seemed as if there were more dead people walking the stage than living.

Shakespeare ends Richard III with a sincere prayer for peace delivered by the future Henry VII, which Boyd deliberately undercuts by having soldiers aiming their guns at the audience whilst it is being spoken.

<< Shakespeare's History Cycle Part I

Philip Fisher reviewed the production of Richard III on its own

Reviewer: Robert Tanitch