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Shakespeare’s Henry VI at Stratford — chattering and battering

Henry VI: Rebellion

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Henry VI is a curiously muted presence in the second and third of his namesake plays, early works by Shakespeare. As reframed here, they split neatly into the chattering and the battering phases. In Rebellion, the Lancastrian monarch fails utterly to quell his cantankerous nobles. The next play, Wars of the Roses, is loud, bloody and sometimes baffling; perhaps director Owen Horsley is making the point that debate, however rancorous, beats open warfare.

Stephen Brimson Lewis’s pared-down design begins with the throne placed firmly centre stage; over six hours of playtime it is gradually pushed to the side, and finally tilted, almost toppled, on a set reduced to dust and rubble. Henry is bookish, churchy and virtuous — distinct liabilities in this era. The rot sets in with a woman, his new queen, Margaret of Anjou. She’s a rag-bag of dramatic types rather than a character, moving from giddy bride through disgruntled wife, villainous schemer, lover, madwoman, harridan, warrior queen and finally figure of abject pity. Minnie Gale does well to cover most of these bases while Mark Quartley makes Henry a figure of huge and helpless pathos.

With the kingship a vacuum, theatrical dominance is booted from lord to lord like a prop head. Richard Cant as Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, Protector to the young king, is a commanding figure of the vanishing heroic past, until the gruff, ruthless Duke of York emerges with his own excellent claim to the throne. Spitting out the lines, Oliver Alvin-Wilson beguiles as much as he repels.

Court scenes are shouty and static while the dazzling stagecraft is left to the plebs. The gullible Duchess of Gloucester is set up in an eerily funny witchcraft scene; overacting pirates descend from the flies to dispatch the seaborne Duke of Suffolk. Most eye-popping of all is the parody king who brings Rebellion to a close: Kentish rebel Jack Cade, leader of the mob, purveyor of fake news and conspiracy theories, is played with ghoulish glee by Aaron Sidwell as a proto Johnny Rotten.

★★★★★

To May 28, rsc.org.uk

Mark Quartley as Henry VI © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

Wars of the Roses

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

The second play has too much roaring and shouting, too many sudden bangs, too many macho “hooarghs!” from York’s rampaging bullyboys as they race diagonally down aisles. Far more effective are the quiet moments; people attain true nobility only when they mourn or die.

A videographer films close-ups projected on the shimmering curtain behind the performers; other filmed scenes are briefly interpolated with the live action, perhaps to anticipate audience members who wish they’d stayed in to watch Netflix.

Cant, who comes to two grisly ends as Humphrey and Lord Saye, beheaded by Cade’s mob, merrily returns as the pretentious King of France while resplendent Paola Dionisotti, the acerbically villainous Cardinal Beaufort of Rebellion, becomes a delightfully morose Exeter. With supporters like that, Henry is truly doomed.

Mindful of his own monarch, Shakespeare couldn’t extol the Yorkists; Ashley D Gayle is a loutish braggart as King Edward (Henry VI’s on a break), while the juvenile Henry Earl of Richmond (Elizabeth I’s grandfather) is puffed by the Bard as “England’s hope”. Foreshadowing, much?

But a real baddie is on the way. Of the dead York’s three sons, the youngest Richard looks the most puny, until he delivers a showstopping speech, coolly contemplating how many people he’ll have to kill before he becomes king, most of them his own family. Arthur Hughes puts down a hell of a marker for his forthcoming Richard III.

★★★★☆

To June 4, rsc.org.uk

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