July 26, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Henry VI Part I (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre

Tonight was my first visit to the new temporary theatre, the Courtyard, so was always going to be a slightly special occasion! The new theatre is really nice, and still smelled of varnish and new wood when I first went into it tonight. The double bar area is a genius idea that really cut down on the queues, and the whole venue is like The Swan on a much larger scale, both intimate and epic, as Chuk Iwuji mentions in the King John programme. My only complaint is that the exits from the auditorium can only be reached through a series of bottlenecks, so at the interval and end there was a massive gridlock of people- it took me over five minutes to reach the foyer!

I love the Henry VI plays, and was really excited to be seeing a revival of Michael Boyd’s productions from 2001, which I didn’t see but were apparently wonderful. I wanted to make sure I saw each play individually so I could judge them on their own merits, and tonight was the turn of Part 1.

I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s not regarded as one of Shakespeare’s best (some current thinking says it might be a collaboration, and possibly a later play than the other two, written at speed to capitalise on the success of Parts 2 and 3. That’s all guesswork though!), but the director carried it off in style.

Two actors I was really excited to see were Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger, who respectively played Feste and Puck fantastically last year, as well as making an hysterical double act as the two Dromios in ‘Comedy of Errors’. In ‘Henry VI Part 1’ they played, respectively, the Duke of Alencon and the Bastard of Orleans, and did so to great comic effect, along with John Mackay (another of last year’s highlights as a wiry Andrew Aguecheek) as the Dauphin. The French scenes were on the whole excellent, the men posturing and preening themselves until Joan arrived to take command of the army.

Katy Stephens played a Joan whose witchcraft carried her far, her attendant fiends helping her to win combats and predict the future. She saw herself as an icon, often striking saintly attitudes while being talked about, and this made her final indignities at the hands of York even more shocking- York even violating her with a dagger to prove she was a virgin.

It’s hard to take this play as an entity in its own right- while the Tragedy of Talbot and Joan makes for a self-contained plot, much of the interest was in the side-squabbles of the English court, with York, Somerset, Suffolk, Wincester and Gloucester all getting their moments in the spotlight. Here, though, none of the men was as threatening as the last minute arrival of the mysterious and manipulative Margaret, who stepped out of a picture frame as Suffolk left the stage, looked around her as if sizing up her new territory, and then strolled casually off the stage. For Boyd, it is Margaret who is the cause for concern, and I’m really excited to see how he develops these characters in Part II.

Elsewhere, Keith Bartlett’s Talbot was a scarred and battered old soldier, heroic but no gentleman. His death scene, carried out in slow motion as he was raised over the crowd’s heads, was surprisingly moving. Bedford and Salisbury both died bloody deaths, and Joan descended into a pit of billowing smoke. Even Henry V was afforded two appearances, coming on bloodied at the start to fall into his grave, and then unleashed later by the dying Bedford to enter the city and win it for the English.

History plays done well can have just as much of an impact as the more popular tragedies, and this was 1 Henry VI done very well indeed. The English scenes, though, did feel like a warm-up for what is to come later, and I just hope that they can make good on their potential.

Posted in Theatre review