July 7, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

The Houses of York and Lancaster (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ York Theatre Royal

Having only ever seen one live production of 2 Henry VI, I’d forgotten quite how much happens in this play. Even with the Simpcox scenes cut, the Globe’s production still fell neatly into four miniature plays: the tragedy of Eleanor of Gloucester, the downfall and death of Humphrey and Beaufort, the rebellion of Jack Cade and the uprising of York. Despite the Globe’s claims that any of the three plays could be enjoyed in isolation, this was manifestly untrue of Part Two which, while being easily the most varied and interesting of the three, lacked the containment or coherence that would allow it to stand alone.

The backbiting that had begun to emerge in Part One dominated the play’s first movement, which took advantage of the peacetime setting to reestablish its courtiers in brightly coloured robes and ramp up the passive aggressiveness. Casting Beatriz Romilly as an Eleanor much younger than her husband suggested a generational difference, she ambitiously seeking more than his experience had taught him to pursue. In a wonderfully staged courtroom scene, Margaret (Mary Doherty) demanded Eleanor stoop for her fan, at which the latter stood upright, staring directly ahead. Margaret stooped herself and hit Eleanor with it as she straightened, upon which her resolve broke and she lunged, nails scrabbling, at the queen. With time allowed to establish the main players, the politics of the court became manifest in small gestures and fixed gazes.

The witchcraft scenes felt oddly detached, as although the prophecies were delivered by a veiled figure standing up beneath a blanket cast on the floor, the prophecies were themselves not picked up again at Suffolk and Somerset’s deaths. Garry Cooper’s Gloucester was a broken man following Eleanor’s disgrace, and increasingly distinguished from the plotting lords around him who brilliantly showed their factions in spatial arrangements that saw groups splinter away from one another and expand separately on their priorities. The less said about the scene featuring mimed falcons, however, the better.

These shifting groups were difficult to follow, which was partly the point. Andrew Sheridan¬†was a strong presence as Warwick, though stammered over many of his lines which weakened his impact. Brendan O’Hea’s York built on his relationship with the audience, becoming ever more the stage villain with his shaved head and gleeful ambition, but continued to melt into the background when the nobles were assembled, as did Beaufort. It was thus left to Gloucester to articulate a sense of one man against a hostile court, giving the first half a shape. Cooper’s increasingly frustrated and angry demeanour allowed the machinations of court to feel relentless and unavoidable, he turning frantically to see hostile courtiers on every side. Yet he presided over the fascinatingly brutal struggle between Peter and Horner that saw merciless slaughter by the apprentice, an early foreshadowing of the fights to come. Kate Waters’s fight direction throughout was disappointing, with the hand to hand struggles following a depressingly routine structure of initial sword clashes, tussle for control of weapon and throwing to the floor before the slow penetration with a blade.

Graham Butler’s Henry, more mature than in Part One but still given to naivety and a misplaced sincerity, came into his own in the wake of the murder of Gloucester. His crown fell to the floor, and Margaret’s shrill remonstrations fell on deaf ears as he rushed about the stage, clutching at his hair and pointing accusingly at Suffolk, screaming banishment before resuming his crown and then repeating the firmer order. Butler invited us to see Henry as someone ineffectual but emotional, and not without a personal strength that emerged when under personal – rather than civil – attack. Beaufort’s death followed shortly, Mike Grady scuttling about on the floor in a nightshirt, screaming at Gloucester’s body and unable to hear Henry. His death effectively cleared the stage for the two sustained rebellions of the second half, moving from the quiet aggression of the court to the open conflict of the battlefield.

The first half closed with Roger Evans’s Suffolk climbing one of the stage towers and being surrounded by pirates, who sawed at him and then dropped his bloodied head to the floor, which lay on the stage during the interval. The second half began with the same actor appearing on stage, whistling and telling the audience to carry on with what they were doing. He picked up the head, frowned at it and then threw it into a bucket. As the rest of the cast assembled among the audience, Cade (for it was he) began singing a song about his own rebellion, which the cast took up and turned into a rousing, stomping number that soon took in the entire audience. This splendid opening was dampened somewhat by the proscenium arch, yet one got a sense of the Globe participatory ethos which would no doubt come into its own in one of the outdoor performances. Certainly the ripple of enthusiasm for Dick the Butcher’s ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers’ suggested an audience ready to burst into violence.

The Cade scenes were entertaining, killing messengers on scaffolds and the hapless messenger who addressed him as Cade, engaging in dispute with lords and offering sarcastic jokes. The relatively light direction showed, however. Throughout the play, bodies were removed inconsistently – sometimes getting straight up and walking off, sometimes being dragged away in clumsy piles, and one wished for the firmer directorial hand that might have imposed some consistency of convention. Evans himself was a standout, however: brusque, amiable, and ultimately cowardly, scarpering through the audience to make his escape. The encounter with Grady’s Iden was one of the trilogy’s most brutal, capturing well the lengths to which a peaceful country farmer was forced in self-defence.

As York returned with his sons, though, there was a clear and powerful shift. While the play’s final movement lasted for only about half an hour, it drew everything into focus. Part of this was, unsurprisingly, the first sight of Simon Harrison’s¬†Richard. The tallest man on stage, there was no mitigation of his villainy: smirking, violent, and with an exaggerated limp and cradled arm that ensured no one could miss him, his appearance caused an immediate ripple of excitement. More significantly, though, the messiness of the earlier spatial arrangements was now replaced with a clear drawing up of battle lines, as the Yorks and Lancastrians stood opposed, Warwick and Nigel Hasting’s Salisbury marched in, and the combatants smeared their faces in red or white battle make-up to make a beautifully simple visual distinction.

As part of this, Margaret was formally disrobed and clad in battle armour, creating the warrior queen that would now dominate. The switch to muted greys and browns meant that the facial make-up now became the primary colours of the stage, and the battles drew attention to the stage metal by being primarily created through the clattering of swords on the stage’s surfaces. The shift in the rhetorical tone was marked by an excellent initial confrontation scene as the combatants spat defiance at one another, and the clear focus as York’s bitter asides became open hubris was powerful. York and Henry stood opposite one another, both demanding the other kneel in a clear distillation of the trilogy’s arc.

While chaotic in execution and spatially messy, The Houses of York and Lancaster served the most important job of putting the elements of Part Three into place and ensuring a cliffhanger ending as the Yorks thrust their swords at the audience. Moving from sentiment to chicanery to comedy to brutal warfare, the play handled its shifts in tone effectively and gradually condensed its focus throughout, becoming a rare production that sped up exponentially until its explosive conclusion, even if that conclusion was itself postponed.

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