July 7, 2013, by Peter Kirwan

The True Tragedy of The Duke of York (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ York Theatre Royal

3 Henry VI is perhaps the hardest play in the canon to begin, starting as it does with the explosion of the Yorks into the Lancastrian throne room. Nick Bagnall had his actors begin standing with the audience before the proscenium arch, then pulling themselves onto the stage in a rather weak movement. This was, however, the worst moment of a production that moved at breakneck pace through the main action of the Wars of the Roses, rarely letting up and making careful sense of the complex plot.

The main concern was to contrast Henry’s pious pacificism with an increasingly brutal violence. While the fights were rarely more inventive than had already been seen, the tendency towards abuse of bodies was marked, particularly as Prince Edward (Joe Jameson) was repeatedly stabbed in the back, Warwick (Andrew Sheridan) held in his guts as he slithered across the stage, and a furious Richard leapt on Henry and subjected him to a startling array of thrusts, punches and, finally, a sword driven into the head. While the fighting was relentless and narratively uninteresting, the escalation of brutality throughout was telling.

Character, by this point, was subordinated to allegiance, and the make-up became ever more important in understanding the action. The shifts of Warwick drew laughter from the audience, and the conversions of George came across as sudden, but by and large the battle-lines remained clear, with Clifford and Northumberland standing out for their bile on the Lancastrian side. While David Hartley’s Clifford was merciless, it did seem as if a female actor (Beatriz Romilly) may have been cast as Northumberland in order to make sense of the character’s pity for York at his son’s murder, which seemed an uncomfortable distinction to make.

The main characterisation was left to Brendan O’Hea’s York, who continued to be a powerful and defiant presence, and to Simon Harrison’s Richard. Both men dominated during the opening scene, where the snapping of insults gave a fast-paced and dangerous tone to the scene, and Henry reacted marvellously as he took centre stage and tried to be heard, while at the same time being forced to turn constantly as different exchanges were heard around the stage. York stood defiant, while Richard circled the stage, leaning through scaffolds and sneering insults at Clifford. Disappointingly, Mary Doherty as Margaret, so strong throughout the trilogy, here gave a more one-note performance, a bitter vaunting that was entirely appropriate but gave the character nowhere to go other than into a straight revenge and counter-revenge arc.

Richard dominated throughout. His delight in murder and his violent actions on the field established his presence, though Harrison’s choice to have him severely hampered by his disabilities meant his prowess was rather undercut. In particular, his initial battle with Clifford suggested that hand-to-hand combat was a desperate and amateurish scrap for him rather than something in which he had experience, and he did not seem able to compensate for the lack of use of his left arm. In soliloquy, however, his sneering honesty was allowed to emerge, and his self-hatred at his body saw him choose, in the moment after being ‘rejected’ by a woman on the front row, to pursue the crown. Richard’s sudden choice to run to the tower and his genuine rage at Henry’s insults made clear the spontaneous and unpredictable facets of the character, allowing him to take a destabilising role.

There was disappointingly less individuation of the other York brothers, even during the wooing of Romilly’s Elizabeth, which was ham-fisted but otherwise unremarkable. Patrick Myles’s Edward, as soon as crowned, appeared in lavish robes and took pleasure in seating himself and his wife on the throne, but Gareth Pierce’s George (who interestingly held a drum for much of the production) had little to do.┬áThe otherwise insignificant appearance of Rivers (Garry Cooper), however, did allow a very effective closing image of the royal family grouped on the throne, with Richard smiling as he held the baby at his brother’s feet, George and Rivers leaning in from the sides, and the body of Henry on the floor below.

The more emblematic aspects were less persuasive. The sight of the three suns was easily played, but Richmond and Henry’s prophecy were cut, and the Father/Son lamentations borrowed from the RSC productions by having the live and dead bodies reverse places, which looked awkward and deprived the stage of the sight of actual bodies. The triangulation of the two ‘ghosts’ and Henry worked well, but needed more formalisation. As in the earlier plays, there was no clear or consistent spatial organisation of the stage, but one effective tendency was to place Margaret and Prince Edward on the raised scaffolds. Edward’s murder mirrored York and Rutland’s (enhanced by Jameson playing both murdered children) with all characters tied to ropes that allowed victims to move while being taunted, but the cast struggled to restrict movement persuasively when necessary.

By far the production’s highlight, surprisingly, was its comedy. O’Hea stole the show convincingly as Louis, accompanied by a cross-dressed Princess Bona. Louis affected a ridiculous French accent, flirted outrageously with Warwick (to the point of stroking his face, pulling him into a reclining position on the floor and saying ‘No no no’ when Warwick awkwardly experimented with touching his nose). The effete performance marked a culmination of the enjoyment of Francophobe lines throughout the trilogy, and painted Louis as a careless, socially inappropriate and unpredictable ally, which reflected fascinatingly on Warwick and Margaret’s actions in the same scene.

As the production ran to its close, the departures became more frequent. Margaret was pushed away and left to walk from her son’s body, wailing loudly. Clifford was found by the Yorks standing propped against a scaffold, and Warwick took himself offstage. The clearing was designed to serve the final ‘showdown’ between Richard and Henry, and the violence with which this was achieved offered a powerful, contained synecdoche of the wars at large. From his decapitation, the head of York stood over the stage and, while this again made little sense of the spatial shifts, the constant reminder of York drew attention to the present place of performance, potent as a movement within the city campaigns to have the remains of the real Richard III returned to the city.

The stamina of the company, performing seven and a half hours of theatre with only short breaks and very little time offstage for anyone, could not be faulted. As a trilogy, Bagnall’s vision was a simple one, based on clarification of story and a sense of fast, directed movement. While the productions would have benefitted from a tidier approach to the organisation of the sweeping movements and a consistent use of the stage, this was a triumphant and ambitious turn for the Globe’s touring strand, and a welcome outing for plays too rarely staged.

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