I have only seen Henry VI twice, both times edited into two parts and followed by Richard III, as part of the English Shakespeare Company’s complete history cycle and in the RSC’s The Plantagenets. The plays have some great characters, Henry himself, Queen Margaret, Jack Cade and Joan of Arc, plenty of action- war, rebellion, betrayal and plot. There is some very moving writing but they do benefit from a good edit as they are early work and rather rambling. Given that they still work really well.
When I saw that the Globe were doing a tour of all three plays, including outdoor performances on some of the battlefields where the action took place I really wanted to see them. In the end I had to be content with an exciting, rain soaked live relay of all three plays in a single day from Hadley Common in Barnet via The Space website. It was one of the best theatrical free gifts that I have ever been given. The staging was simple, fast, sure footed and clear and the performances were full blooded and honest. There was some particularly good stylised work in the staging of the battles which I liked very much, and some clever staging ideas, like having King Henry curled up with his book from the start and eventually reacting to what was going on below him.
The history plays are all about character and they stand or fall on how well these are portrayed and this is where the productions really shone. Beatriz Romilly was wonderful as Joan of Arc- a gift of a part- and she has real presence and authority on stage. Her Joan is full of fire and conviction and ready to take anybody on but naïve and touching at the same time. Later she played Lady Grey and matched up to the power of Mary Docherty’s formidable Queen Margaret as another, very different, strong woman. She is a very fine young actress. Graham Butler really understood King Henry, that was clear from watching him on stage before he ever said a word, and it was easy to feel for him while being as frustrated as his courtiers that he just isn’t made of the right stuff to be King. He is completely out of his depth. With his father’s greatness hanging around his neck like an albatross it was always going to go wrong and the vultures are circling. He is no war lord and Richard of Gloucester is on the rise. It was a cracking performance, funny and touching. You could see his every thought. Richard himself was played with a nice swagger by Simon Harrison, relishing his evil, which made me wish we could have sat there even longer and seen him in Richard III. This is a conclusion to the story which the Henry VI plays cry out for as we see the whole sweep of history hurtle on to the zenith of Richard’s power and the devastation of the powerful and clever Queen Margaret. Among the supporting characters I found Garry Cooper very convincing as an authoritative Duke of Exeter and very moving as the father who killed his son. Jack Cade’s rebellion was very well done, surrounding the audience with a dangerous gang of ne’er do wells led by a wild and raucous Roger Evans. The hint of humour alongside the danger surrounding the rebels was well portrayed. “The first thing we do, lets kill all the lawyers.” Never was a line more sure of a laugh, done well it might even get a cheer.
I wish I could have seen these productions in person. I would have been more than happy to sit there all day and get soaked to the skin on Hadley Common along with the brave cast but at least I was there, in my own way, and it reconnected me with the plays and stirred up some good memories.