July 7, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

Harry the Sixth (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ York Theatre Royal

The Globe’s touring adaptation of the first of the Henry VI plays announced its ambition from the first, with an enormous covered throne standing central on the Theatre Royal stage, flanked by two scaffold towers. The bare, skeletal structures were surrounded by galleries boasting armour, tabards, drums and weapons, evocative of a museum gallery. This staging of history may only have had a cast of fourteen, but the story told by Nick Bagnall and his team was all-encompassing.

Despite having no direct connection to the Henry IV/V series staged at the Globe itself over the last couple of years, Henry V had a strong presence throughout as the wars in France once more reared their head. Henry’s coffin was borne in solemnly to the sounds of a woman singing, with red and white roses forming a St George’s cross on the coffin lid. It was around this coffin that the warring nobles stood to pluck their badges, and from inside which the soldiers of both sides drew their swords, making the laws a literal bequest of the dead monarch.

Yet despite this potent symbol of remembrance, and the wheezing presence of Nigel Hastings’s Mortimer, this production was more interested in its future. At the end of the opening scene, Garry Cooper’s Humphrey pulled down the drapes covering the throne to reveal the boyish Henry (Graham Butler) sitting on a wooden platform, on which he remained (partly displayed, partly confined) for the entire production until Talbot’s death. In direct contrast, the red-dressed woman who sang Henry’s elegy (Mary Doherty) continued to act as something of a stage manager throughout: passing Joan her sword, delivering messages, ringing alarums or simply leaning and watching. This woman was, unsurprisingly, finally revealed as Margaret, and her role in escorting bodies on and offstage implied something of her future martial aspect.

Caught between past and future, the split focus between England and France was well delineated, though the necessary extensive doubling inevitably required a certain amount of concentration to follow. There were few easy gimmicks used for clarification. Mortimer, in particular, relied merely on voice to explain the complex lineage of York with no visual aids, and for some reason the editors did not clarify the textual confusion that sees Beaufort referred to as cardinal before he is appointed to that rank. Yet the focus throughout was on clear storytelling and a fast moving plot.

This had its costs. Casualties of the heavy cutting included Bedford (and thus an obvious link to Henry V), Fastolfe (though he was evoked by casting the older, bearded Cooper as the soldier making Frenchmen run with just Talbot’s name) and, most crucially, the Countess of Auvergne. Without this scene, Andrew Sheridan’s Talbot had very little time to develop. The actor gave a brusque performance, filled with roaring and an impulse to violence that saw him take John Talbot (Joe Jameson) by the throat in a fascinating mixture of rage and deep love. More moving was the quiet scene that followed. The was no noise of battle or sense of violence- instead, Talbot delivered a quiet lament for John, who returned to the stage and lay down. Talbot draped himself over his son’s body and Henry left his throne to take their hands. The scene was moving, though rather implied Talbot had committed suicide following his son’s death.

Much better was Beatriz Romilly as Joan, channelling Brenda Blethyn from the BBC version as a Mancunian with guts. The cuts here were lighter, sacrificing her list of potential fathers for the child she claimed, but retaining her father, who stood alongside her and finally condemned her as the nobles planned her death. Throughout, Joan was vocal and driven, pushing herself to the front of all groups and swaggering in the few depicted scenes of combat. Her shrieking defiance at the end was the production’s emotional high point, a suggestion of real atrocity.

For a play about wars, fighting was largely unseen. Actors clattered on the metal scaffolds to create the noise of offstage conflict, and actors swung their swords wildly towards the audience. It was a shame for the talking not to be more punctuated. The scaffolds were used effectively, however, to create two opposed vantage points that shifted from towers to towns to camps, often becoming the ground of the victor in the shifting territorial claims. The danger is, with this play, that the action become formulaic, but Bagnall kept the staging arrangements pleasingly dynamic. What the production lacked was clear spatial organisation – despite the clear possibilities for emblematic staging, there was no consistency to the patterns of ascendancy, left-right movements or passages into the afterlife, in the manner that gave Michael Boyd’s RSC productions such coherence.

The effectiveness of the production was less in the action than in the establishment of the character dynamics which would clearly be developed later. Brendan O’Hea’s York emerged early as one to watch, assuming the privilege of audience address. Narrow-eyed, he hovered at the edges of the action, intervening strategically in his own interests. The enmity of Somerset was established in a series of scenes of vaunting, beginning over the coffin of roses and extending to the scenes of diffidence to Talbot’s requests for help. Mike Grady’s Beaufort was established as the villain of the piece in his snarky asides, while Humphrey was a tempestuous Prospero-like figure, carrying a magisterial staff of state and barking orders. The older courtiers dictated the dominant tone of sniping, threats and the occasional outburst of clatter, but this was clearly preliminary to what would follow.

Butler established a fascinating Henry, awkward and nervous, but with a passionate scream that served his turn at moments of betrayal and high emotion, where a genuinely powerful king (if trained) emerged. He provided many of the play’s more amusing moments, particularly when awkwardly trying to drape a sword around the neck of the newly knighted York. Margaret, on the other hand, showed confidence in her dealings with the ambitious Suffolk (Roger Evans). She pulled away from his fuller kisses, maintaining an ambivalence that kept Suffolk guessing and maintained his interest. A smug Reignier (Patrick Myles) enjoyed watching his daughter elevated, but otherwise the French were more or less indistinguishable.

What Harry the Sixth did expertly was establish the groundwork for the trilogy. Alone, the abbreviated Talbot/Joan plot did not form a satisfactorily complete theatrical experience, despite particularly strong work from a Joan who pleaded desperately with her spirits, offering herself body and soul. In the remainder of the play, it was the early establishment of the figures we recognised would go on to greater things that captivated but also limited the play’s potential as a stand-alone piece. With York, Beaufort, Suffolk, Margaret, Somerset and Henry all promising actions to follow, the stage was well set for Part Two.

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