March 3, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

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

With a quick note that the excitement really started as soon as I sat down and remembered that this was my absolute favourite part of the Histories Cycle, I’ll leap straight into my highlights:

  • The entire sequence from the death of Geoffrey Freshwater’s Winchester to that of Geoffrey Streatfeild’s Suffolk was a theatrical coup. In vengeance, Richard Cordery as the ghost of Gloucester descended the stairs to Winchester’s deathbed, and held down his arms as Henry VI pleaded with the man to raise his arms in forgiveness. Left dead and alone, Gloucester then attached Winchester’s body to a hook and winched him up into the ceiling, the corpse waking up and screaming chillingly as he went. Then, coming up through a trapdoor in the bed, the Keeper and his Assistant emerged along with the ghosts of Talbot, John Talbot, Gloucester and Winchester, with the captured Suffolk in tow. Michael Boyd’s audacious rewrite of this scene, to have the dead Talbots capturing prisoners in revenge for their own slaughter, became intensely affecting, Lex Shrapnel shining as he demanded of his father why they couldn’t just kill their prisoners. Suffolk’s face as he took off his blindfold, saw his persecutors and realised he was already halfway to hell, was shocked and yet oddly welcoming, and the ‘boat’ that the bed had become sailed off into the mouth of hell as if Charon himself were steering it.
  • Antony Shuster, who wasn’t in the original Henry VI trilogy, made a couple of cameo appearances. Most hysterically, he donned the costume he wore as Shadow in 2 Henry IV and appeared as one of the revellers in the Simpcox scene, a very funny moment for those of us who recognised him.
  • Another actor who got his moment in this play was Paul Hamilton. Usually a soldier of some description (though he stood out as Douglas in 1 Henry IV), Hamilton’s characters were usually loyal soldiers and models of chivalric decency. This came to the fore in his pastoral Alexander Eden, provoked to killing by Jack Cade’s violent presence in his garden. Hamilton’s performance was memorable for its calmness, an uncomplicated good man in troubled times.
  • Chuk Iwuji went from strength to strength as Henry VI, really showing the character’s growth in his emotional moments. Key among these were his pain at relieving Gloucester of his office, his body shaking as he gave the command, and his fantastic anger at Suffolk, banishing the man mercilessly and screaming at Margaret when she tried to argue. His cry of “It is irrevocable” was one of the few moments when he really appeared a King. Another solid moment came as he moved among the scheming nobles as they stood still, making his points about human mercy to a group who clearly had no interest in listening.
  • The rebellion of John Mackay’s Jack Cade was as funny as ever, with Cade leaping and twirling about the stage. The particular highlight, though, was Forbes Masson and Jonathan Slinger in their comic double-act, bringing an audience member up on stage, threatening to execute him and emptying out his bag. The best moment was when Slinger picked up a copy of a book that had fallen from the bag. “What’s that?” asked Masson. “Richard Three” replied Slinger, to hysterical response from the audience. Masson’s reply? “I’ve seen it. It’s shit!”. Beautiful. I also got knighted by Keith Bartlett’s Ghost of Talbot for a second time!
  • Clive Wood’s York started coming into his own, particularly in his pre-interval soliloquy where he clutched at his head, almost mad in his ambition for the crown. Wood’s presence was strong throughout, and much was made of moments between scenes where he and Henry crossed paths. He also had a nice comic touch, particularly when making a throwaway mention of the House of Windsor when staking his claim to the crown.
  • The fighting power of Patrice Naiambana’s Warwick started to be realised in this part. He grew throughout: slightly comic as a politician (the awful “Maine” joke and the more funny “What plain proceeding is this?” after York’s complex explanation of his family tree), as soon as the double swords came out he became a centrepiece, fighting off the rest of the cast at once and then screaming for Clifford as he stalked the battlefield.
  • Richard. The appearance of Jonathan Slinger as the young Richard moved the excitement up a whole gear, he rocking back and forth with a cackle as he got ready for battle. As soon as he appeared, the end of the cycle seemed in sight, and his performance across this and the next two plays was a real highlight. The first appearance also culminated in the awesome stand off between York and Lancaster that acted as prelude to everything to come, the two sides lining up against each other.
  • Gloucester and his wife (Maureen Beattie) gave a very nice intimate home scene that stood out amidst the rest of the action. Beattie’s performance was good, especially excelling when dressed in sackcloth and shivering on the streets with bloodied feet. Richard Cordery’s Gloucester was excellent throughout, confused and frustrated by his gradual loss of power and touching in the loss of his wife.
  • The commons in the first act were interesting in different ways. Matt Costain and Alexia Healy were funny as Simpcox and his wife, adopting Geordie accents and providing a nice comic touch (and Suffolk’s attempt at the accent in mockery was also very funny). Julius D’Silva and Kieran Hill as Peter and Horner, meanwhile, was an early indication of brutality. Their fight, with tin shields and clubs, was incredibly brutal and barbaric, the two thumping away at each other and Peter eventually killing his master by slamming down the shield into his throat to a mass wince from the audience.
  • Roger Watkins brought a great deal to the small part of Lord Say, creating a nervous nod for the character which made him instantly recognisable, and also allowed for the cruel taunting of Cade’s mob who surrounding him nodding, only to change to a shake when he asked for his life.
  • Katy Stephens and Geoffrey Streatfeild were again dominant throughout the first half, Margaret revelling in court life and getting her way with a variety of winning smiles (in Henry’s presence) and powerful shouted commands (when near the commons). Never a shallow villain, though, Stephens gave a layered and complex performance that demonstrated Margaret’s cleverness in bending the situation to her own ends. Suffolk, meanwhile, swaggered through his scenes confidently and with a matter-of-fact style of speaking that marked his arrogance but also made him oddly likeable. The moment of Margaret holding his decapitated singing head in the doorway of the hellmouth was not only a visually neat trick but also moving, she affirming her loyalty to Henry while still cradling her lover’s head.

I could go on about this production. The sorcery scene, the details of Winchester and Gloucester’s feud, York’s stone-laying scene, the screaming of the commons as they threw stones onto the stage, the blood spilled on the battlefield as Somerset spat in Richard’s face….. just wonderful. The cliffhanger ending, too, left us desperate to bridge the 75 minute gap until Part III.

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