May 16, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Henry VI Part One @ The Rose Theatre, Bankside

The Rose on Bankside has been continuing its ongoing series of productions based on the original repertory of Henslowe’s theatre. This month sees a particularly special event: an in-house production (as opposed to the usual hosting of young companies) of 1 Henry VI, unusually presented in isolation from the rest of the trilogy. Further, the theatre had negotiated for the use of the entire space of the Rose; so, rather than being restricted to the narrow viewing gallery where the audience sits, the cast were free to use the space of the original Rose foundations. This atmospheric and cavernous space, its base filled with rocks and water, has been an atmospheric backdrop to previous productions, providing a suitably hellish atmosphere for Soliman and Perseda and The Spanish Tragedy, but here it shaped and dictated the creative approach to the production.

The young company, under the direction of Bronagh Lagan, rattled through the play in two hours with no interval, with relatively few major cuts – the dialogue between the gunner and his boy was cut, but John Fastolfe was retained. The major scenes were played immediately before the audience on the viewing platform, but a ledge at the far end of the cavern was frequently brought into play in order to position the two armies facing each other across the lake. Most of the battles were not staged, but as the play pushed towards its climax the soldiers began to occupy the shores of the lake at the bottom of the pit. In this Stygian environment, armies moved in slow motion towards each other, casting huge shadows up the walls, and clashing swords in an evocation of battle rather than a realistic depiction. Phil Webb’s lighting design showed off the space to best advantage, and if future productions will be allowed to take similar advantage, the Rose will undoubtedly become one of the most breathtaking venues in London.

There were two disadvantages to the enormous space. The thundering music used for the battle scenes was piped out of speakers on the viewing gallery, and drowned out any concurrent dialogue from the other side of the cavern, a rather obvious oversight. More specific to this play was the disjointedness that inevitably resulted from action switching between areas so far apart from one another. In such an episodic play as 1 Henry VI, the distance meant that even connected sequences were broken up, making the play more difficult to follow. Making up for this was a sense of the scale of the war, subsuming individual actors to the larger movements of the countries.

Performances were solid, managing successfully to differentiate the large number of thinly-drawn characters. The strongest of these was Ben Higgins as Talbot. This grizzled warrior was militaristic and tempestuous, contrasting strongly with the other lords during Henry’s coronation in France as he grabbed Fastolfe and shoved him to the floor. The decking on the viewing gallery became his command post, including during one well-choreographed sequence where he huddled with Salisbury behind a railing, looking out over the pit. A couple of figures ran around in the darkness, and one of them held up a light. There was a shout, and then the railings were shaken by an apparent explosion and the two men were thrown to the floor, Salisbury rolling over with blood covering his face. Higgins’s strength was in giving a human face to scenes such as these, speaking with the urgency and desperation of the battlefield. In a shouting match with Connor Farrin’s John, the production found its most powerful voices as the two men traded rhyming couplets and attempted to push each other away while also holding ground.

Suzanna Marie was a decent Joan, though a little monotonous in her enthusiasm and prone to throw away key lines, particularly in the desperately garbled prelude to her execution. This smug Joan carried a broadsword and laughed in the face of her enemies, supremely confident in her strength. In a beautiful later scene, though, she passed through the fighting masses on the shores of the pit, and walked to the edge of the water where she invocated her spirits. Abandoned by them, her humour and resolve finally faltered, and she shrieked as York and his company beat her into submission and took her sword.

Among the assorted nobles, Oliver Lavery’s Gloucester and Morgan Thomas’s Winchester stood out. Gloucester was a villain straight out of Victorian melodrama, and the company took advantage of the play’s isolation from Part Two to play with the complexities of their feud, rather than portraying Gloucester as heroic against Winchester’s villainy. Lavery was spiteful and relished the insults he delivered to his foe. Thomas, by contrast, was a dignified Winchester, standing upright and allowing the insults to wash over him, but then showing his true colours in soliloquy. For Henry’s coronation, the two nobles mounted a raised dais alongside the young King, and Gloucester handed Winchester the crown. There was a pause as they shared a look, before turning to present a unified front to the other nobles.

Isaac Jones was a tremendous Henry, showing the young King’s vulnerability and indecisiveness. He vacillated and simpered, while maintaining a consistency in his basic virtue. He pleaded desperately with his uncles to stop their followers down in the pit throwing stones at one another, and Gloucester’s orders were followed by one of them throwing a large rock at the barriers, the noise of which sent Henry cowering to the floor. Yet he came into his own as the play went on, delivering summary judgement against traitors and standing up against Gloucester after Suffolk’s report of Margaret.

There were too many episodes to describe each one individually, but a special mention must go to the two scenes of desolation played out in the distant corners of the pit. David Vaughan-Knight languished on the shore as Mortimer, as Richard stood above him and questioned him, and later Talbot adopted a similar position as he cradled the body of his son and passed away. The physical distance of these scenes did not detract from their power, and they were in fact heightened by the isolation of the figures within the consuming blackness.

The success of other roles was variable. Samuel Lewis was excellent, if a little too scenery-chewing, in a succession of noble, vaunting roles including Bedford, Warwick and Lucy, bringing a gravitas and dogged resolution to the battle scenes and especially to the final condemnation of Somerset. Steven Clarke and James Clifford were effective as York and Somerset, although their bickering (particularly in the final scenes) didn’t feel as central as it might. Clarke in particular, though, grew into the role following his conversation with Mortimer, and brought out the character’s noble frustration, in opposition to Somerset’s more conniving treachery. Amy Barnes, as the Duchess of Auvergne, played far more to the audience than was really needed, but offered entertaining relief from the main plot in her short scene, which culminated with her quailing while surrounded by spears and swords. Once raised to her feet by Talbot, she was rather turned on by the whole experience, and led him offstage with a wink. The French weren’t very clearly differentiated, which was a shame as all the actors were decent, but were perhaps ill-served by so many of their scenes being performed on the far side of the space.

The star of the show, however, remained the theatre itself. Joan’s execution was held back until the final scene. As Suffolk left the stage, the a single light came up in the middle of the lake, and Joan began edging her way across some planks towards it. Smoke began billowing up, and Joan was lost in smoke and orange light, a visually effective burning and a powerful image on which to close the play. While not a perfect production, the Rose reclaimed the play as a stand-alone piece and pushed the limits of what could be achieved within the space, and if nothing else, this production will be hugely influential in determining how the Rose itself can use its unique features to enhance productions and inspire new audiences.

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