Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Henry VI, Part 2

William Shakespeare
Young Vic
(2001)

In terms of the bloody battling of the Wars of the Roses, this part of Shakepeare’s history plays is relatively quiet. It moves the story forward amidst much plotting and is characterised by wordy debate and struggles for power.

The play commences with the introduction of the young King to the beautiful Margaret. In this production, David Oyelowo almost literally falls in love with his new Queen, Fiona Bell. Unfortunately for the King, his love is not returned. The Queen is already besotted with the Duke of Suffolk and together they begin to form an axis of power.

Their primary aim is to remove the King’s protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. In this they are assisted by his old rival, the Bishop of Winchester.

Unfortunately for Gloucester, his wife has designs upon power and, in by far the most visually exciting scene in Michael Boyd’s production, she joins a coven of witches in a bizarre exorcism. During this scene the dead are raised and movingly, these dead are Talbot and his son from the first part of the play.

Gloucester’s wife is discovered and led to execution. This makes his position untenable and the Queen and Suffolk between them manage his removal. The most moving speech in this play is delivered by Gloucester as he denounces his accusers. This is followed by the Queen, as she expresses her relief at the removal of the man who had effectively kept power from her. This is very much a play of ghosts and Boyd makes the most of this as the dead Gloucester continues to haunt those who have deposed him.

As well as losing his protector, King Henry has also lost France. The wars have not been going well. As if all this were not enough, there is also now uprising in Ireland.

After the interval, the action begins to develop. The King is threatened on all sides and no longer has Gloucester to protect him. Not only are the Queen and Suffolk broking for power but also two other parties.

Jack Cade, humorously played by Jake Nightingale, leads a peasants' rebellion against the King. There is something of a carnival atmosphere but with real bloody bite. As the rebels march across the country, they show real zeal in their efforts to root out the rich and privileged. This leads them to murder those who are educated even to the minimal extent that they can read or write.

Eventually, this rebellion is quashed with the assistance of Richard, Duke of York. His motivations are various but in particular, the House of York, wearing white rose brooches, is keen to put down the House of Lancaster (in red roses) and to preserve relative peace in the kingdom. This is so that they can press their own claims.

Clive Wood as York has already illustrated his belief that he is the rightful King. He does this by creating a family tree on stage which though massively confusing appears to bear out his argument that the crown has wrongly been removed from his branch of the family.

He then launches an attack supported by his three sons. These include the young Richard who will eventually take centre stage in the final play of this series. The battle seems to take the form of hoards of actors rushing across the stage creating a great feel of the speed of battle if not the violence.

While this wordy play is well written it lacks some of the action of the earlier and later plays in this season. It carries the plot forward well and clearly reflects the complicated history at this time. It also shows us how the boy King is beginning to come of age in an unenviable situation where everybody is plotting around and against him.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher