Henry VI, Part 1
The Shakespeare history season having already run through two different venues at the Barbican now moves on to the Young Vic for the last four parts. It is a great relief to see that the Young Vic has gone back to its normal configuration, playing in the round. This follows the somewhat questionable experiment of setting up a traditional proscenium arch for Six Characters Looking for an Author.
The current set-up suits Shakespeare and draws the audience into the play as Richard II did at the Barbican Pit. Michael Boyds direction works very well in this intimate area and his use of all of the space available (including thin air at times) is superlative. As with so much of this season, the director is well supported by his designer, Tom Piper, musical director James Jones and particularly his lighting designer, Heather Carson. Once again, this production looks fantastic so often and the contemporary costumes are often sumptuous particularly the red velvet gowns of Joan of Arc and her followers.
This play is one of political and physical fights. Within England, there is much dissension as a 9-month old boy takes the throne under an angry protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (played by Richard Cordery). Gloucester is challenged by the sinister Bishop of Winchester (Christopher Ettridg)e even though both of them are from the House of Lancaster. This in-fighting is compounded by challenges to the throne from the Yorkists led by Richard Plantagenet (Clive Wood).
The civil unrest at home is mirrored by the war in France which is slowly going against the English. This is despite the incredible efforts of Lord Talbot, played by Keith Bartlett, and his son John (Sam Troughton). These two hearty warriors seem a cross between Horatius and friends defending the bridge and Batman and Robin. They take on the might of France, itself divided, almost single-handedly.
Charles the Dauphin, played very camply by Aidan McArdle, is initially challenged by a girl, Joan la Pucelle. She later grows up to be the Maid of Orleans, Joan of Arc. Both McArdle and Fiona Bell, who plays the wonderfully strong Joan, are excellent. Joan has the strength of four women and this is very cleverly demonstrated by Michael Boyd's direction.
This wonderful visual production perhaps peaks during the bloody fighting in France. There is a truly horrific scene when Pembroke loses his eye fighting for the boy King.
Not only is this a play about battles, but there is also love and seduction, provided both in the relationship between Joan and the Dauphin and in the efforts of the scornful Countess of Auvergne to become a suitor for the boy King, played by David Oyelowo.
Finally, this haunting dream-like production is led by the unsaintly Joan who can be very vicious and warlike, whether play-acting a fight with the Dauphin, challenging the whole of the British army with the severed arm of the Duke of Bedford, or in her beautiful, defiant death. Boyds idea of having Joan seemingly rise from the dead is great theatre. Fiona Bell changes her Scottish accent to English and transforms from Joan to become Margaret of Anjou, the future Queen of England.
This moving, haunting dream-like first part lives up to the standard and quality of this season of plays.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher