November 16, 2019, by Peter Kirwan
Henry VI (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
NB: This review is based on a preview performance.
Henry VI, the fifth entry in the Globe’s 2019 Histories Cycle, was a production of compromises, if not a compromised production. Reuniting the ensemble that performed 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V over the summer (with a couple of replacement members), the decision to compress the three parts of Henry VI into a single production involved making sacrifices – not least the entirety of 1 Henry VI, leaving this a rare opportunity to see the plays once sold as The Whole Contention of the Houses of York and Lancaster. But even with one limb lopped, directors Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian and company were pressed to cover the action of the Wars of the Roses in a little over three hours, resulting in a production that oscillated between pacey and rushed.
Designer Grace Smart’s set converted the Sam Wanamaker into a regency palace, with marble floor, pillars and a red chaise-longue pride of place centre-stage, acting as the backdrop for a first act structured around the fall of Humphrey of Gloucester (John Lightbody). The relative stability of the locus of power in the first half was boarded up for the second act, ostensibly to introduce the rebellion of Jack Cade (Sarah Amankwah), but more importantly to turn the stage into neutral contested territory for the rise and fall of the Duke of York (Colin Hurley), as competing sides took turns to graffiti their ownership of the stage onto the walls. And for the wars between Edward and Margaret of Act Three, the chaos was visualised in the suspension of the chaise-longue above the stage and the covering of the floor in a pile of soil. The degradation of the set, and the final reclamation of the torn and battered sofa, made something of a mockery of war as the survivors struggled over a world that bore little of its earlier splendour.
The most effective decision of the edited production was to make Henry VI himself, in the person of Jonathan Broadbent, the central figure of his own plays. Broadbent was perfectly cast as a version of Henry who was youthful and insecure – his red hoodie and trousers looked at times like he was wearing overgrown pyjamas – but who had a righteous streak that allowed him to take control at moments when he was threatened. His condemnation of Suffolk (Nina Bowers) and Margaret (Steffan Donnelly), in particular, was a thrilling moment of asserted power as he shouted down at his kneeling queen. While Henry was a figure of frustration and sometimes ridicule for those around him, he never fully forsook his kingly presence, and could never be ignored. Each act of the play ended with Henry, aghast and confused, left alone on stage and then quietly closing the tiring house doors, leaving the realm of the stage to the fates, or to God.
Henry provided an important focal point, especially in the first two acts where muddled blocking often made the stage spatially incoherent. The first act was dominated by a royal tableau, with Henry sat on the couch with first Humphrey and Eleanor (Amankwah), and later Margaret, beside him. The nobles were then grouped in a line behind, dressed in casual suits and dresses of their red or white allegiance. The group portrait acted as a helpful image of the power arrangements, especially as first Eleanor and then Humphrey were ousted from the happy ensemble. However, the arrangement became limiting, with too many scenes performed with the actors locked in their positions, only occasionally breaking out. Yet when they did break out, the blocking seemed poorly thought through, often leaving large areas of the stage empty while actors obstructed one another in enclosed areas, most notably in the climactic scene in which York finally announces his opposition and the two factions take shape. The later half of the production was better organised, including a face-off between Edward’s and Henry’s troops that arranged two sets of seating facing one another, allowing for Parliament-style heckling of each other. But the spatial fuzziness, combined with shocking lighting design that left some whole scenes performed in near-shadow, was a significant challenge to the clarity of the stage dynamics.
Some of this was also down to the cutting. Cardinal Beaufort was cut, a sensible decision in an already busy production, but it left Humphrey without a structural antagonist, and while Lightbody gave a great reading of the character, he felt somewhat lumped in with the other nobles to such an extent that the threat he offered to the other factions didn’t come through. Nonetheless, Lightbody and Amankwah made for a great power couple as the Gloucesters, with Amankwah’s Eleanor in particular enjoying taking up space on the stage, and shocked when Margaret stepped up to her. Humphrey’s unpleasantness showed in a particularly brutal treatment of the wheelchair-bound Simpcox (Philip Arditti) – a scene that reads especially problematically, with its accusations of disability fraud and its dismissal of a working class trying to get by – and he sinisterly held his sword up against Henry’s throat when giving up his staff, but his dire warnings to Henry about the machinations of others meant that his final murder, which closed the first act, still felt significant.
Donnelly’s Queen Margaret was clad in a translucent red dress and flats at first, and during the first act she seemed genuinely ill-at-ease in the court, appealing to Suffolk and worrying about her standing. A great device – used mostly in the first act – saw characters carrying out their soliloquies while amid the rest of the ensemble, leading to a particularly effective moment as Suffolk and Margaret snogged over Henry’s head while he sat between them. But Margaret’s emergence as a force to be reckoned with – firstly as she slapped Eleanor hard in front of the court, then as she tried to stand up to Henry, and then as she changed into a football shirt and boots to take the field of battle – served as an important emotional core for the whole play. Margaret had a macabre side – at one point she stuffed York’s head into her purse – but also a great emotional range, and her thrashing as she watched Prince Edward (Matti Houghton) killed, and then railed at the murderers as she was ejected from the kingdom, were heartbreaking.
Where Margaret and Henry provided a cohesive through-line, however, the production was elsewhere too full of ideas that were only partially realised. The changing of all the cast into football shirts halfway through the production was a nice aesthetic way to capture the factionalism and keep track of who was who; but, although tying in with the impression of hooliganism suggested by the early echoed shouting of ‘England!’ every time the country was mentioned and the sons of York downing cans of lager, the shirts felt like a purely aesthetic choice rather than tying into any informed critique of violent patriotism. Sophie Russell’s Richard appeared on the battlefield laughing and wielding a chainsaw, getting a laugh, but this moment of comic grand guignol was an isolated one. And while Act 2 opened with Jack Cade’s hooded and masked rebels wandering the auditorium and making threatening noises from outside, the sequence was cut to its barest bones and the rebellion instantly quashed, making it unclear why the production bothered to include this rebellion at all. Comparisons are odious, but next to the coherent aesthetics and politics of past cycles by the English Shakespeare Company, Propeller, and RSC, this production felt too often like a miscellany.
York provided the main structural arc of Act 2, and Hurley was typically great, his calm presence and self-righteous confidence making him a formidable foe; and his death scene at Margaret and Clifford’s (Bowers) hands was especially brutal, as he was forced face down into soil and choked. York’s glowering presence throughout Act 1, with his end-of-scene soliloquies returned, set him up as an early threat, and there was a pleasure to watching him emerge in full bluster to face down the court. His sons, Edward (Amankwah), Clarence (Lightbody) and Richard, were a formidable presence too, laughing and cocky. Yet while they stood together to watch the three suns rise – one of the few effective lighting moments, deploying the electric lights in the hallway at the back of the auditorium – the schisms were already there, and the production showed its hand in giving much fuller space to the characters who would be returning in Richard III, including Clarence’s rebellion in Act 3 and the introduction of Elizabeth Grey (Bowers), mocked by Clarence and Richard as they downed their lager.
The third act was by far the most successful. It opened with Henry in a pile of mud, joined by the entire ensemble scrabbling in the mud next to him as they looked for their fallen sons and fathers and spoke directly of their woe to the king. Combined with the disintegration of the set, the more symbolic approach in this final section worked well and made a virtue of the tight ensemble and limited stage space. Images of Warwick (Arditti) and Clarence changing between their maroon and white football shirts represented their switching allegiances well, and the feral actions of the York sons – the three pouncing together on Warwick to kill him, and Richard tearing out Henry’s throat with his teeth in the closing scene – suggested something of the decline in civilisation. The French scene, too, gave both Arditti and Donnelly some meaty material, especially as Margaret screamed in joy as news of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth was received, and Prince Edward forced Warwick to kneel in the mud as he changed his allegiance. The effectiveness of this scene was muted somewhat by the baffling decision to keep Louis (Leaphia Darko) and Lady Bona (Amankwah) in the pit in almost complete darkness, leading to a scene staged effectively in silhouette while the brightly lit stage remained mostly empty.
Even with the compression, this remained a rich retelling of the Henry VI plays, with much to relish in the individual performances. Russell milked Richard’s soliloquies for all they were worth, using her first major one to stage her own transition to committing to the crown, and pulling in the audience in a way that whetted the appetite for the same ensemble’s Richard III; her haunting song as the three brothers killed Warwick was especially sinister. A beautifully staged initial fracas of pushing and shoving during York’s announcement of his treachery led him to slamming Old Clifford (Lightbody) into a pillar as if a genuine stage accident; as Old Clifford fell down dead, York and everyone else seemed genuinely shocked and embarrassed, before they committed to the new escalation of violence. And the final declaration of ‘everlasting joy’ by the newly crowned King Edward, followed by a Graduate-evoking awkward pause that spoke of the trials to come, allowed for a great segue to the following play. But the lack of cohesion meant that the production, at least at this preview stage, felt like an efficient and clear telling with moments of brilliance, rather than something more than the sum of its parts.