Henry VI - The Trilogy

William Shakespeare
The Globe on Tour
York Theatre Royal

Garry Cooper, Graham Butler and Mary Doherty in King Henry VI Trilogy Credit: Gary Callon
The cast of King Henry VI Trilogy Credit: Gary Callon
Graham Butler and Mary Doherty in King Henry VI Trilogy Credit: Gary Callon
Garry Cooper and Roger Evans in King Henry VI Trilogy Credit: Gary Callon

The Globe on Tour opens its journey around the country, presenting all three Henry VI plays in York's Theatre Royal before striking out to outdoor performances at some of the battlefields crucial to the history, and then to the company's London home itself.

Audiences have the opportunity to watch all three plays in a single day, or spread out over a week. Having spent a sweltering summer Saturday in the company of this capable cast, I heartily commend their endeavour, and recommend the result to audiences whether familiar with the history or not.

If you have energy and time for it, I also recommend taking in all three shows in a single day if possible, as the marathon effort is rewarded by a sense of development between the separate instalments similar to that of bingeing on a quality box set. Though the company insists that each play is watchable individually, there are certainly arcs and patterns—accentuated by the sensitive direction (Nick Bagnall) and design (Ti Green)—which really reward viewers of the whole trilogy.

The staging itself is fixed, simple, and multi-function, as might be expected from the Globe. Twin towers of steel scaffolding stand at either side of a central, similarly towering wooden centrepiece, at first draped in cloth and at various points appointed in the colours and emblems of the faction, York or Lancaster, in the ascendant.

The stripped-back staging and unfussy doubling is swiftly established with the slow appearance of the whole ensemble, accompanied by atmospheric drumbeats and Mary Doherty's pure and beautiful singing. The first part also brings in the notion that different roles will be indicated by simple costume changes and additions effected often in full view. Transitions between scenes are swift, often accompanied by a simple drum beat, the momentum maintained impressively (a feat which becomes all the more impressive the further into the sequence of plays we go).

The death of Henry V, though not depicted here, kicks off the events of the plays, and this is marked by the ceremonial coffin borne in to Exeter's elegy. But the text of the first famously takes us straight to the battlefields, and it is in these movement sequences that the performance hits some uncertain notes: a shame, as the ensemble is strong as a whole.

It's distracting when the French dukes open the casket to retrieve broadswords, as the hitherto powerful and weighty symbol is diminished by this multi-functionality. Worse still, when battle breaks out, the actors are required to perform an unconvincing movement / mime sequence against invisible foes. Perhaps this will be more effective when eyeballing the actors across the fields of Towton, Tewkesbury, St Albans and Barnet, or at the more spacious Globe, than it is as framed by the proscenium arch of the Theatre Royal.

This is really the only off note of a powerful, effective mounting of the plays, though, in which each of the fourteen performers shines in turn. Watching the whole trilogy together enables one to trace the ebb and flow of the historical figures and of the actors themselves.

The eponymous Harry the Sixth (Graham Butler) begins bookish and exploited—his paranoid twitches as a messenger intrudes on a courtly scene are one part of the detailed conjuring of this uncertain and volatile environment. Later he makes a few crucial dubious decisions, and ends up betrayed by all around him. The rise and fall of his attempts to reassert authority is wonderfully marked by the production: Part Two sees the excellent Mary Doherty come into her own as Queen Margaret, who takes the lead while Henry is reduced at points to watching the action unfold from one of the scaffolding towers.

The whole ensemble speaks clearly and without unnecessary flourishes, and most relish their opportunities to inhabit multiple characters. Beatriz Romilly is superb as Joan of Arc in the first part, impulsive and fierce at times yet also poised as befits the Maid of Orleans. In the second play, she becomes the stately Eleanor, a total transformation, and again in the third, the proud and principled Lady Grey.

Roger Evans also really gets to revel in his doubling, moving from his role as the treacherous Suffolk to the rebellious commoner Jack Cade, in an electrifying moment at the beginning of the second half of the second play which injects fresh energy. As the revolting common folk slowly assemble around the auditorium to whip up the popular uprising, a new idiom and convention is brought to the production, aptly introduced and well-conceived.

The final part is much concerned with the settling of scores, and while the endless shifts of allegiance become somewhat bemusing (the text of all three is sympathetically, but massively, cut), there are moments of clearly expressed and deep feeling. When Young Clifford's (David Hartley) execution of the captured York is halted by Margaret, he howls with the rage of vengeance unfulfilled.

Like Part One, Part Three is a battlefield play, but, without the somewhat awkward stylisation of the ensemble battles of that part, the company shines. The skirmishes are at closer quarters, the weight given to the dialogue of diplomacy and double-dealing.

Brendan O'Hea, having excelled as the strong but shifting Richard Plantagenet of York throughout, is suddenly also given a chance to break out here, as he doubles as the comically effeminate Lewis XI of France. The camp with which the role is imbued is just about justified, given the amount of French-baiting Shakespeare himself indulges in throughout the trilogy.

Overall, it is the strength in depth of the whole cast which is mightily impressive, and watching all three plays rewards the viewer with an opportunity to enjoy the waxing and waning of the performers as well as the fates of their characters.

Reviewer: Mark Love-Smith

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