August 16, 2006, by Peter Kirwan
Henry VI Part II (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre
I have to admit, this is my favourite part of the trilogy, and so the chance to see ‘2 Henry VI’ by itself today was one I was enormously looking forward to, especially as I again had a front row seat. And, once again, it didn’t disappoint. The ‘Henry VI’ trilogy are in contention for my favourite productions of the Festival so far, and Part II is possibly the best of the three.
It was also interesting to see the middle part of the story presented independently of the other two. Certainly the ending was something of a ‘To be continued’, but it still managed to stand alone as a complete play- prophecies came to pass, the central characters of the first scene all had fully-developed stories and it was a thorougly satisfying experience.
The first half was a slow burning build-up, focussing on the court politics and bringing out the subtleties (and not-so-subtleties) of the power struggles between Gloucester and Beaufort, Somerset and York, Suffolk and Margaret, all laying way for the second half in which all hell quite literally broke loose.
One of the great things about this production was the opportunity it gave for two key actors, Clive Wood and John Mackay, to shine.
Clive Wood’s York was suitably evil, planning his coup well in advance and ending the play staring across the stage at a trapped Henry. The highlight, though, was Mackay’s Cade, a gloriously camp rebel who skipped about the stage and led his troops with a mixture of confidence and good-humoured menace (if such a thing is possible).
The rebellion scenes were phenomenal, full of audience participation and banter, with a surreal mix of bloodiness and comedy that disoriented the audience, highlighting the bizarre nature of Cade’s actions (the ever-wonderful Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger started the rebellion wearing fish heads and dancing with the headless body of Suffolk!).
Elsewhere, ghosts started to dominate the play- the ghost of Gloucester holding down Winchester’s body and the ghosts of Talbot and his son murdering Suffolk. Also, the first appearance of York’s sons promised great things for the next instalments, with Jonathan Slinger making the most of his short stage time as the future Richard III.
I really have no complaints about this play- even small roles such as Hume (Slinger yet again!) and Lord Say were distinctive and remained in the memory long after. Humphrey’s assertion that his was only the prologue to a longer story rang true, but what a prologue!