Henry VI: Rebellion and Wars of the Roses – The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Reviewer: James Garrington

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Owen Horsley

History is full of periods of upheaval, and there are few more so than the Wars of the Roses, a long-lasting and brutal struggle for the English throne. This season at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) gives us the opportunity to get a reminder of the times, with the latter two of Shakespeare’s Henry VI playing across the spring and Richard III continuing the story through the summer. Take yourself to a two-show day and you get the chance to see the Henry VI: Rebellion and Wars of the Roses back to back, creating a six-hour epic of the turbulent final years of Henry VI’s life, with all the political manoeuvring and bloodshed that surrounded them.

It’s an ambitious venture and one that works pretty well in providing continuity in the storyline. There is an imbalance in the productions though. Take them as a pair in sequence and we get a nicely building piece of theatre, leading to a suitable climax, and from the production and the programme and website notes that is the way the productions are intended to be seen. Taken alone though, Henry VI: Rebellion would leave you wanting more, and not in a good way. With a focus largely on the political goings-on, who is in or out of favour at court, it moves along steadily but with no great moments of drama. What it does do well is to start to establish the characters in our minds, with their ambitions, their strengths and their weaknesses. Move on to Wars of the Roses and it’s all action, as the struggle moves away from the political to the battlefield. If your time or resources only allow you to see one, make it Wars of the Roses.

Among the usual strong cast at the RSC, Mark Quartley is a suitably uncertain and indecisive Henry VI – reluctant to act, unwilling to fight and easily manipulated by those around him. Even as his kingdom is being taken from under his nose he seems unable to respond and it’s left to his wife to take up arms to defend their son. Minnie Gale provides a strong Margaret – a dominant force, her incredulity at her husband’s inaction bordering on contempt alongside her growing confidence as a military leader. Her performance builds to a well-delivered climax as she is dragged away, weeping over the loss of her son and pleading to die alongside him.

Oliver Alvin-Wilson is also strong as Richard Plantagenet, the man determined to overthrow Henry and take his place on the throne – a good tactician, and a powerful leader. Ashley D Gayle gives a well-judged Edward, a flawed man who allows love to get in the way of an important political alliance. Ben Hall is a diffident George, the weakest of the brothers and easily swayed – and we get our first glimpse of Arthur Hughes as a ruthless and evil Richard, created Duke of Gloucester and already moving to replace his brother on the throne of England.

With the large production comes a large cast, and alongside the professional actors, there is an opportunity for community participation with both adults from around the country as part of the Shakespeare Nation initiative and young performers from the RSC’s own talent development programme, Next Generation Act. The use of these extra performers allows the production to put a lot of people on the large stage at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has given us a simple set consisting of a series of shifting platforms, moving around from scene to scene as though following the fortunes of the protagonists, slowly disintegrating to be little more than a gravel pit with a shattered throne as the piece builds towards its final bloody climax. Behind it all is video, something which starts as a strength but becomes increasingly intrusive as the production progresses with on-stage cameras being thrust into the faces of the actors creating some unnecessary blurry and out-of-sync close-ups.

An interesting, ambitious and epic piece of theatre, giving an opportunity to see again some of Shakespeare’s less popular plays.

Runs until 28 May 2022 (Rebellion) and 4 June 2022 (Wars of the Roses)

The Reviews Hub Score

Ambitious but uneven

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The Reviews Hub - Central

The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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