July 13, 2008, by Peter Kirwan

Henry VI Part III: The Chaos (Young Rep) @ The Door, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

It’s not unprecedented to produce one part of the Henry VI trilogy in isolation, but it’s an extremely rare occurrence and a financial gamble that few professional theatre companies can afford to take – who’s going to come and see just one part of a trilogy? Yet for their latest production the Young REP have followed in the footsteps of Katie Mitchell’s 1994 RSC production by putting on Henry VI Part III by itself, presenting the play as a contained piece that stands alone.

The Young REP, Birmingham Rep’s youth theatre group, are made up of youngsters aged 8-18, but their productions benefit from the professional input of the Rep’s costume, lighting, sound and props departments, as well as from adult direction and design. The result was a production of professional quality that was simply peopled by young actors. Taking place in the Door, the Rep’s studio space, the play was staged in traverse with a small audience (no more than 80 total) on either side. At either end of the space scaffolded towers stretched up to the ceiling, decorated in tattered flags depicting red and white roses, corrugated iron and ropes. This England was already a wasted environment, after years of civil war. The playing space itself was a simple green mat, the field of battle.

Two things are striking about 3 Henry VI when seen in isolation. The first is the sheer pace of the action. Battle follows battle follows battle, with the bits in between simply providing the lead-up to the next fight. Politics and underhand tactics are all over by this point (save for those, of course, swirling in Richard’s twisted mind), to be replaced by the brutality and desperation of open war. The second is the amount of major roles. York, Margaret, Henry, Warwick, Clifford, Edward, Prince Edward, Richard, George, all appeared almost equal in the amount of stage time and importance granted to them – making the play, of course, ideal for a young amateur company. These roles showcased the surprisingly impressive skills of the young actors which, in many cases, could be favourably compared to those of professionals.

Dominant from early in the play were Adam El Hagar’s Warwick and Lorna Nickson-Brown’s Clifford. Both stood behind their chosen sovereign in the opening scene, fighting their cause with voice and presence. El Hagar’s voice was excellent: strong, confident and clear, he effortlessly projected the authority and danger of Warwick, casually dismissing his opponents with an offhand shrug and scornful inflection. Taller than most, he had only to look down on his opponents to establish his power. His threat was only matched by Nickson-Brown, who projected a very different kind of danger. With furrowed brow and dark stare, she tilted her head and looked up at her opponents with an almost feral snarl. Clothed differently to the rest of the Lancastrians, hers was a barely-controlled presence, a monster in the midst of Henry’s loyal supporters.

Henry VI himself was portrayed as particularly weak in this production. York’s justification of his claim was cut from the opening scene, making Henry’s capitulation especially pathetic, a genuine crime against his son. Margaret, a very strong Jasmine Woodcock-Stewart, made her feelings known by slapping her husband hard across the face. Henry may have been hen-pecked, but he deserved no less. His terror at being forced by his son to draw his own sword was apparent, and he was marked out as weaker than any of his own soldiers. Margaret, on the other hand, only grew in strength throughout and provided some electric moments in performance, particularly in her truly hysterical grief at her son’s murder. Standing after calling for Richard to kill her, she turned and looked back at the Prince’s body before letting out a scream that sounded from the very depths of her soul, and it took three men to drag her, kicking and screaming, offstage. Beth Skidmore, one of the youngest actors in the cast, also gave a fine performance as the young Prince, particularly in defying the sons of York who towered over her. This was one of the benefits of having a child in the role, bringing out the fiery spirit and nerve of one so green.

Steven Turner’s York was a leader of men rather than an out-and-out villain. Bearded and wearing a feathered cap, he looked every inch the king in the opening scene. Interestingly, Rutland entered with the rest of the soldiers and York’s attention was more on his son than on the throne, placing a fake crown on his head before attending to the business at hand. Another effect of only seeing Part III was of course that York didn’t last long, and his early death scene was one of the most inventive pieces of staging. The actor was attached to a winch coming down from the ceiling which raised him to just above ground level, and Margaret and Clifford swung him back and forth across the auditorium as they taunted him while the other Lancastrians leant against walls and laughed cruelly. His head (an amazing likeness, another reminder of the professional quality of the design) was paraded over the stage and then placed on one of the end towers, to remain there for the whole first act watching over the action.

The other set pieces in the first half were generally quite impressive and showed a great deal of imagination on the part of director Tim Ford. Drums were used to underscore much of the action, often being heard outside the auditorium long in advance of an army entering in order to convey the sense of dread as war approached. The first two battles were particularly well done – in the first, about ten drummers stood around the edges of the stage creating a deafening wall of noise, in the midst of which the rest of the cast clashed swords and moved, while a ‘Spirit Child’ (an eerily silent performance by the tiny Jane Newby) scattered red and white roses. For a second battle, drummers marched up and down the edges of the traverse while the soldiers struggled in slow motion in the centre. The effect was extraordinary, effectively evoking the chaos and confusion of war.

However, the set pieces started to lose their invention in the second act. The play had borrowed the subtitle The Chaos from the RSC’s recent production, and its indebtedness to that version was apparent throughout, for example in the Spirit Child who entered after every death to escort the body offstage, and the Son and his dead Father swapping places so they mourned over each other. These elements worked well, but then in the second act the production started plagiarising more obviously. The RSC’s iconic image of Henry VI standing in a spotlight as white feathers fell from above, gradually turning into red feathers, was copied exactly for no apparent reason, and the ending was also copied exactly – Richard was left onstage with Edward’s baby, cradling it as music built to a crescendo and then suddenly stopped, the stage blacking out just as he said "Now…". Considering the play was being performed in isolation without going on to Richard III, and the fact that the audience were family and friends rather than Shakespeare enthusiasts, this ending met with no reaction whereas in Stratford it brought the house down. These borrowings were disappointing after the excellent – and more original – first half; it felt almost as if the production had lost confidence in its own ideas and had resorted to copying the RSC, whereas it had in fact been doing an excellent job at distinguishing itself.

The aforementioned Richard, played by Grace Barrington (it was interesting, hopefully coincidental, that the two biggest monsters of the play, Clifford and Richard, were played by actresses), was a highlight throughout. Hunchbacked and limping, she spoke with a leering cackle that was reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West. A pantomimic villain, Barrington played up to the audience while also bringing elements of pathos to the role, particularly in the soliloquy that closed Act 1, where among other things she tore off her glove to reveal her withered hand and her wig to reveal a withered scalp. This latter was particularly effective, as the wigwork was so expert that the audience hadn’t realised it wasn’t her real hair. Her sick fascination with gore and violence was obvious throughout, even putting Clifford’s severed tongue into her mouth and sticking it out at her brothers. Her role was also strengthed in relation to Henry’s in the tower. Henry’s soliloquy was cut so that the scene began with her entrance, and the scene became a consolidation of her evil and evil intent. Henry’s death, just like his presence in the rest of the production, was incidental – the play was about the chaos, not about the King.

The play retained most of the action and text of the play, but there were moments of clever editing and conflating by Ford that served to streamline the action. One of the most dramatic changes cut the entrance of the troops to Warwick’s army. Instead, the battle saw Warwick captured relatively unscathed by Richard and Edward. As he and they argued, George entered and rejoined his brothers in a more intimate reunion, which was then sealed as the three stabbed Warwick brutally to death. Another key change was at the death of Prince Edward. Instead of capturing the Prince and Queen, the two armies were instead facing each other on equal terms with swords drawn. As the Prince verbally assaulted his opponents, Edward lost patience, pulled the young man over and stabbed him in full view of everyone. The Lancastrian soldiers, still holding out their swords, quailed and fled before this scene of unfettered brutality while Margaret screamed. While rather unlikely, this change served to show the now-unshakable power of the Yorkists, their dogged committment to victory at any cost against which no army could stand.

This was, by and large, a highly interesting production that clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of the play as a stand-alone piece of theatre. Apart from needing a bit more confidence in its own ability without having to borrow from the RSC, this was an excellent piece of amateur Shakespeare, with some startling performances from a young cast and a great deal of invention. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of the importance of giving amateur and youth groups the attention they so richly deserve.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

Posted in Theatre review