Henry VI

William Shakespeare
Omidaze / Wales Millennium Centre
Wales Millennium Centre
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A year ago, Omidaze broke new ground, not only by putting on a rare an all-female production of Richard III but also by staging it in an area of the Wales Millennium Centre which is unfamiliar to anyone but the venue’s maintenance staff—the cavernous space beneath the venue’s imposing roof. It was a success both critically and in terms of audience numbers.

In 2016, they have returned with the prequel, director Yvonne Murphy having undertaken the task of combining the Henry VI trilogy into a single piece. This takes us from the aftermath of the death of Henry V, via the Wars of the Roses, to the beginnings of the rise of the future Richard III.

The evening begins with us being led by WMC staff up various staircases and (excitingly) through doors marked “No Unauthorised Access”, to the performance area, which resembles a hellish factory floor. The bleak industrial set is dressed by Gabriella Slade, as are the performers—in beautifully stylised fatigues, with either red or white armbands; and the ambience is enhanced by Tic Ashfield’s spine-chilling sound design.

It is made clear from the beginning that, rather than an attempt at a naturalistic production, this is about eight performers spinning a cautionary tale, with bloodshed symbolised by red confetti, dead bodies by piles of discarded clothing, and noticeably ramshackle crowns.

The headline “novelty” element is the fact that Henry VI is played by aerialist Hannah O’Leary, who delivers much of her dialogue from several metres in the air, dangling on ropes and curtains, sometimes imperious, sometimes playfully teasing her assembled aides (and the audience) by pretending to fall. Her physical elevation suggests not only the King’s noble birth but also the character’s moral superiority, since he is seen to be above the bickering, dishonesty and acquisitive war-mongering of all who surround him.

She is the only performer who does not play multiple roles, and the cast is extremely strong; Sioned Jones is compelling as the unfortunate Richard Plantaganet and Lizzie Winkler increasingly twisted as Richard Crookback. Indeed, every performer gets the opportunity to shine, Alice White, Shala Nyx, Polly Kirkpatrick and Louise Collins all showing admirable commitment as various warring nobles.

In interviews, the director reminds us that in Shakespeare’s time, all parts were taken by males; thus her all-female casting can be seen as a simple attempt to redress the prevailing balance. The fact that Suzanne Packer’s chilling Queen Margaret is every bit as cynically duplicitous as the men who surround her subverts the idea that this production is a simplistic critique of masculine folly.

Murphy has much experience when it comes to delivering Shakespeare workshops for nervous would-be theatre-goers of all ages; thus we know we are in good hands when it comes to the text. As a director, her marshalling of the various resources at her disposal is equally exemplary. This being a promenade performance, it seems that every square inch of the unfamiliar space is used, and, as the actors usher us from place to place (with occasional manhandling where necessary), one cannot help but be drawn in.

There are brief interludes of choreographed movement which don’t work for me, seeming at odds with the intensity of the dialogue; and it is sometimes difficult to untangle the precise details of alliances, antagonisms, and shifting allegiances (although, this only serves to reflect timeless political realities). Furthermore at three hours, including a much-needed interval, the piece is somewhat taxing, both intellectually and physically.

Nevertheless, this is a remarkable, darkly beautiful, seductively immersive experience.

Othniel Smith