Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Nick Bagnall
Reviewer: Michael Hootman
It could be said that the problem with Shakespeare’s Histories is that they tend to blur into various squabbles among blokes named after counties coupled with one long, inexplicable war with the French. Daunting as this may seem, don’t let lack of a History A Level put you off. It doesn’t really matter if you’re not sure exactly why York hates Somerset, and why everyone seems to hate Winchester. You don’t even really need to know about the Plantagenets’ claims to the throne. The Globe’s production of Henry VI Part One succeeds through the performances, the staging and its sheer theatrical bravado.
The play is a tricky one to pull off. In essence it comprises a series of historical tableaux so traditional heroes and villains are thin on the ground. Its strongest character is Joan of Arc: a female warrior who’s a curious mixture of pious virgin and demon-summoning witch is just more interesting than any number of lords trying to consolidate their power bases. But director Nick Bagnall manages the feat of making even the political rivalries compelling. For example a scene which purports to explain the origin of the War of the Roses, while making no historical sense, works at a poetic level: various characters align themselves to a side by the act of choosing a red or white rose petal. The simmering hatreds and underlying tension more than make up for the fact that the reasons behind each individual’s choice remain steadfastly unexplained.
The performances are, as one would expect from the Globe, all first rate. Garry Cooper’s Gloucester is a compelling piece of Shakespearean acting. He has grizzled dignity and gravitas which makes him an absolute joy to watch. At first I wasn’t that keen on Beatriz Romilly’s Joan who seemed to be played too much like a rather boisterous schoolgirl. Though as the play progresses she develops into a more rounded, yet tragic, perhaps mad, anti-heroine. The scene where her conjured demons refuse to do her bidding is brilliantly, wildly theatrical. Graham Butler is charming as the boy-king who has yet to understand how the game of politics works.
This is a fine interpretation of the play, but even with all the talent on stage and behind it, you can see why it’s rarely performed. The narrative is too disjointed and the characters’ various claims to the throne, which would have resonated with a 17th-century audience, are today rather baffling. The play ends anticlimactically with a minor character succeeding in marrying off the king to Margaret of Anjou. Dynamite at the time because of the rôle Margaret would have in the course of English history. Bagnall, very wisely, finishes off the evening with the entire cast going into a lively dance: a proper God-fearing ending that would please the harshest of groundlings.
The three parts of Henry VI run until 20th July 2013 at the Theatre Royal, Brighton.