Henry VI


Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I can’t necessarily say I enjoyed it but this play certainly offered a lot to chew on. It was a bit of an odd duck – and I don’t just mean Henry himself, bless his innocent and foolish soul…


Firstly – this (reasonably long) production is a contraction of Henry VI Parts 2 and 3, focussing on the political intrigue and the two families at war. So I probably shouldn’t count it and certainly not as Henry VI part 1 but oh I will if push comes to shove. No fault of this production but it didn’t inspire me to seek out many others…

It’s part of a season which includes Richard III so (as far as I know) they cross-cast between the plays. They certainly cross-gender-cast: Margaret was played by a male actor (who wore women’s clothing); Suffolk was played a woman (although if I recall correctly she mainly wore suits); Richard was played by a woman too (again, mainly in suits) and so were the younger characters. I mention that now because I may come back to it – nothing was really made of it in the performance (I don’t think they changed pronouns for the characters, for example).

It felt like a great use of the Playhouse to contract the action down to the two families and end up with an almost chamber-piece of intriguing and betrayal. We could believe we were overhearing the machinations of a court.* When Jack Cade’s mob (in V-for-Vendetta masks, natch) surrounded the whole playhouse and raged, we couldn’t help but share Henry’s fear and anxiety.

As always in the SWP, there was little in the way of staging – the only piece of furniture on the stage was the red velvet chaise longue which served as a throne – a cunning choice, that, in that it allowed room for Margaret to join Henry and, indeed, allowed plenty of space for a second king. Nicely prophetic, that…

Every Globe production has at least one great song and this one was a catchy number about burning the unbeliever**, sung by the cast, picked up with great gusto by Jack Cade’s mob*** and reflecting the fake violent patriotism displayed by all sides. It felt like the stage had been opened out to make it easier for us to hear (and see) the musicians – but given the noticeable chill there was when the trapdoor in the ceiling was used I expect it’s always like that and I just hadn’t noticed it before.

The two sides spent their time in court in incredibly sharp suits (especially Philip Arditti’s wheeler-dealer Warwick and Colin Hurley’s cockney geezer York) and waged war in football outfits – it worked to show the shifting allegiances (just rip your shirt off to show the one underneath!) but made light of the conflict, a little. Which was particularly ironic given the urge to overdo the dirty nature of war with actual dirt and to make the violence extra-violent. It wasn’t a good omen when the second half started with stage hands laying tarpaulin over the stage and the deaths of the two young lads were brutal in the extreme. This production also made the Yorks incredibly yobbish – think old-school football hooligans (I certainly did!) drinking and wenching their way to the top. Sophie Russell’s Richard in particular was all spite, aggression and ambition. Their rise was no pleasure to witness.

Not that peace-loving Henry did much better with his conniving crowd, who after all started the violence and were the first to brutally murder a child. Jonathan Broadbent seemed to be the shortest member of the cast – as physically overmatched (especially by the towering Steffan Donnelly who was a wonderfully sharp, wild and masterful Margaret) as he was psychologically. Frankly, Henry was almost the only character who you could have any sympathy for, in his mild ways, omniphilism**** and desire to think the best of everyone. Of course since everyone else was so horrible you actually wanted to shake some sense into him until his teeth rattled, except he would have kindly thanked you for it as your blood pressure soared through the roof. Broadbent trod the line between simpleton and over-optimistic very finely.

There was plenty of doubling up in the rest of the cast, which made a lot of sense. Nina Bowers’s forceful, devious Suffolk came back as the young Clifford and then Elizabeth, all determined characters (even if only Elizabeth got what she wanted and not dead).***** Sarah Amankwah’s inconvenient truth-speaker Eleanor became justified rebel Jack Cade and then the victorious Edward. John Lightbody played the honourable and moderate Humphrey (dead), the slight less honourable but moderate Old Clifford (dead) and the not very honourable but moderate Clarence (soon to be dead, as confirmed in-play by Richard). Credit is due all round that each character was sharp, distinct and clearly realised.

Honestly, thinking about it, nearly everyone ends up dead – except for Margaret, Elizabeth and the three sons of York. Which makes the history play feel more like a tragedy – not un-fitting for the way it had been presented, both in terms of Shakespeare’s characterisation and how this production had been distilled, with Henry’s flaws helping to lead to his downfall.  It was a grinding, downbeat play brought intelligently to life, and it’s not a world I’d like to linger in.

* The panelling really helps with that, as does being in the front row.

** I can’t tell you more, this is another un-googleable phrase.

*** “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” got a laugh – but given the political shenanigans we’ve had with prorogation and the like, it felt more like a way to turn a coup into a tyranny…

**** All-loving. Like omniscient or omnipresent. Yes I am making up words.

***** Margaret ended up with Suffolk’s head in a bag. Since this happened in Imogen, I’m just going to assume there’s someone in the Globe props department who likes making fake severed heads and putting them in bags…