March 3, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Henry VI Part 1 (RSC) @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

Arrived back in Leamington Spa at 12.30am after Henry V, stayed at a friend’s house (got a few hours sleep) before running for the 9am train to get back to the Courtyard for 10.30am. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I wasn’t feeling my freshest. I mention this because the Henry VI trilogy are so amazing that they jerked me completely awake and kept me enthralled all day. I’ve seen Part 1 three times before, this being the fourth, and yet I still saw new things all day. Here’s the highlights:

  • Julius D’Silva as Lucy was wonderful. His mannered rhetoric was spoken in a voice that expertly handled the verse and brought out the character’s frustration at the arguing peers. D’Silva is quite possibly my favourite actor of the whole ensemble, bringing something unique even to his most minor parts, and he shone throughout.
  • From this play onwards, the significance of stones was more apparent, with Roger Watkins’ Mortimer giving York (Clive Wood) one in token of his claim to the throne. This stone would reappear in a bag with many others in Part II, as York made his pitch to Warwick and Salisbury.
  • After some minor parts in the previous four plays, Katy Stephens reclaimed the stage. Her performance as Joan was brilliant; whether flicking blood at the English from Bedford’s severed arm, smiling seductively at the French lords or screaming defiance at York as she descended into a fiery pit. Her performance was commanding – she owned the stage whenever she was on it, standing centrally as men fell over themselves before her.
  • The Dauphin (John Mackay) was a camp highlight again, flouncing about the stage. The point about his and Joan’s nighttime antics was reinforced this time when both appeared in the dark barely dressed, with Mackay’s cheeks exposed to good (if gratuitous!) comic effect.
  • Lex Shrapnel and Keith Bartlett impressed with their handling of the very artificial dialogue between Talbot and his son. The rhyming lines sound awkward to modern ears, very formulaic, but the two actors met this head on, constructing out of them a deeply-felt argument. Bartlett’s scream of “Your mother”, as he described the impact of bad news on his wife, was a wrenching moment, not a little reminiscent of his excellent turn as Northumberland in 2 Henry IV.
  • Henry VI is a very difficult part to play, but Chuk Iwuji made a beautiful job of the young king, hugging Gloucester (Richard Cordery) around the waist and running to greet the heroic Talbot who he had heard so much about. The childlike innocence with which Iwuji invested the character had a real impact after his more eerie and adult appearances in Richard II and Henry V, showing the actor’s skill.
  • One of the stalwarts of the whole cycle was Tom Hodgkins. While never taking one of the truly lead parts, Hodgkins was regularly cast as powerful soldiers, second-in-commands or princes, and I was really conscious over the five days of the excellent work he was doing, creating a strong military presence personified in one man that almost always indicated the winning side. His turn as Bedford in this production was one of the highlights though, screaming in pain as he threw open the grave of Henry V to invoke his spirit against the French before his dignified death.
  • Miles Richardson, another of the strong ensemble players, similarly had his moment here as Exeter. His warning soliloquies had a choric function, but Richardson brought a sense of loyal care to the part, a voice of conscience on the country’s behalf that put things into perspective. He also had one of the most effective speaking voices, a deep and clear voice that gave his character an unequalled dignity.
  • The three demons (Ann Ogbomo, Alexia Healy and Hannah Barrie) were a nice presence throughout, but the really chilling aspect of them was their humming, a three tone note that underscored Joan’s conjuring.
  • I’ll save more detailed discussion until the next part, but Geoffrey Streatfeild’s plain-speaking and smooth Suffolk, Richard Cordery’s upright and uptight Gloucester and Geoffrey Freshwater as a sneering and sarcastic Winchester all did sterling work leading up to their bigger roles in Part II.
  • A few other nice touches included: Chris McGill as a panicking soldier comforted by Talbot; Antony Bunsee’s stirring defiance of Talbot’s troops as he told them of the approaching French, his voice rising to a spinechilling crescendo; and the earthy Warwick (Patrice Naiambana) kicking away Joan’s charms after her failed conjuration, a nice touch showing Warwick’s no-nonsense approach. A special mention, to, to the second half entrance of the French, particularly James Tucker commando-rolling onto the stage with dagger between his teeth!

Part I is the part of the trilogy that works best on its own, having in Joan and Talbot a very nice through line that completes itself. As the start of a long day, though, this production also left me hanging on for more, particularly in knowing that the character arcs started here would culminate dramatically before the end of the day. By itself, though, a fabulous and richly detailed production.

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