Henry VI

William Shakespeare, adapted by Barrie Rutter
Part I of the Wars of the Roses trilogy
Northern Broadsides Theatre Royal, Newcastle, and touring

Production photograph

Barrie Rutter has chosen to end his two-part adaptation of the Henry VI trilogy with the ominous rumblings of the beginning of Jack Cade's revolt, making this Henry VI (the second part is Edward IV) the shortest of the three Wars of the Roses plays. It's a good choice, as this is the point that, with the restoration of Richard of York to his dukedom, the tide begins to turn to the House of York, a movement which will culminate with the firm establishment of Edward on the throne of England, accompanied by the growing ambition of York's third son, by that time named Duke of Gloucester.

The Henry VI trilogy is not altogether easy to follow: the politics are complex and the shifting alliances can be confusing. Wisely Rutter has omitted many minor characters and focused our attention on the main protagonists, reducing all mention of the French wars purely to how they affect the English political situation and relegating Joan of Arc to a minor character. Thus, although some of the omissions do make some of the shifts seem sudden and not fully explained, the resulting script has the major virtue of allowing even those who do not know the play or the period easily to follow the twists and turns, without sacrificing any of Shakespeare's language.

Northern Broadsides has a major focus on language and all Rutter's writing confirms his love of Shakepeare's poetry. He believes that the language of Northern England, with its short, sharp vowels and what he calls "iron consonants", is particularly suited to that language and that poetry. On the evidence of this production, one has to agree with him: it gives the lines a hard edge which is much more difficult to achieve with RP alone.

Theirs is a stylised form of playing, too: music and dance play a major part. Battles are not fought with swords or spears, but with drums and dance moves. Talbot, for example, attacks Joan with drums and she responds with dance. Battles are also fought using tap dance (a little reminsicent of Christopher Bruce's dance piece, Swansong).

This stylisation is also evident in the design. The actual set design (by Jessica Warrall) - a kind of ruin stage right and an assemblage of scaffolding, stairs and rails on the left - is effective as are the somewhat timeless variations on medieval costume. I could not, however, understand why no one actually had a sword: many carried a dagger and, in the battle scenes, a scaramax (a sort of long-handled machete) which was the weapon of the poorer soldiers who could not afford a proper sword. It's a very minor point and perhaps indicative of a kind of small-mindedness (who? me?), but it did nag at me.

The production features a superb performance by Andrew Whitehead as Henry VI. Often played as an unworldly ascetic or even a simpleton, Henry is a much more complex character than that: unsuited by nature to kingship, inclined to see the best in people and confused by adolescence. Whitehead captures the essence of the character and, while we often react to what he says and does with a heartfelt "Oh, you idiot!", we cannot but feel sympathy for him.

>> Edward IV
>> Richard III

J D Atkinson reviewed the trilogy at the West Yorkshire Playhouse

Touring to Glasgow and Halifax

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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