A new venue has opened in Shakespeare's Stratford-upon-Avon. The Courtyard Theatre announces its existence by staging the trilogy of plays under the title Henry VI. What a glorious space it is too. A magnificent wooden and steel amphitheatre whose architects, Ian Ritchie Ltd, have learned well from the Swan, provides a fitting setting for the marathon of three Shakespeare plays, each over three hours in length, staged back to back on a single day. What all too easily could be an arduous experience for all but the hardened Shakespeare-watcher is in fact joyous and moving, not least because of the most comfortably-designed theatre seating in the land. These things matter and at last we have in Britain an international venue for the arts.
The Artistic Director of the RSC, Michael Boyd, is the directorial brain behind the Henry VI plays, dramas which, with a decidedly Elizabethan pro-Tudor slant, selectively chart the troubled political times which inevitably lead to the civil 'Wars of the Roses'. This epic tale of struggle, blood and deceit, which eventually and inexorably introduces the villainous construct of a warped and twisted Richard III, abounds with historical explanation and implicit comment. Boyd has embraced the militaristic narrative and presented it with force and clarity.
These are certainly not plays for the faint-hearted or the weak-stomached. These are plays which explore the horrors of close-combat, both on the field of battle and in the back rooms of government, rubbing our faces in the blood and grime of medieval conflict. Severed limbs and heads and gore and pools of sticky blood smother the Courtyard Theatre stage. In a wonderful moment at the end of Part III, the ill-fated Edward IV glides over the stage in virgin-white Coronation robes, his long train literally soaking up the generations of English blood that has been spilled prior to him achieving ultimate power. Happy with his new wife, Lady Elizabeth Grey, Edward hands the baby royal prince to his brother Richard; like a black kite hovering for the kill, the future Richard III embraces his infant nephew with malignant and murderous joy. Boyd's production makes the horrific run-up to Shakespeare's later Richard III all too clear.
According to the programme notes, Boyd's intention is to forge a new spirit of ensemble acting at the RSC; the Henry VI plays are a perfect vehicle for this ambitious plan. Throughout the three plays, characters emerge with whom we become intimately acquainted and who remain constant throughout. Others double a number of roles, eventually emerging as strong and distinctive characters within a dramatic whole. Throughout, there is the assurance and excitement of watching great performers in their element, not struggling with a proscenium space, which demands breaking through an invisible barrie r between audience and action, but engaged in easy and effective communication. The Courtyard provides the blueprint for the changes Boyd intends for the Main House at Stratford . Shakespeare is, in the heart of Shakespeare country, at last freeing itself from its strait-jacketed Victorian roots.
As for the Henry VI plays, although there is a through-narrative which threads its way throughout these histories, each play has a distinctive style and dynamic of its own. Henry VI Part I is a wildly jingoistic piece of anti-French propaganda. John Mackay plays the French Dauphin, Charles, like a manic puppet on a string, assisted in his camp pomposity by Forbes Masson as the Duke of Alençon and Jonathan Slinger (Puck in Doran's magnificent Midsummer Night's Dream) as the Bastard of Orleans.
Charles is assisted in his battles against the English by the witchcraft of Joan la Pucelle, whom we remember as Joan of Arc, whose military prowess and skills in battle are no match even for the hero of the English forces, Lord Talbot, the scourge of the French. Katy Stephens is a feisty Amazonian heroine whose sexuality and daring are only matched by her religious conviction. Battle s ensue, with the Courtyard balconies providing vantage points for exciting and exhilarating aerial displays.
Joan might be victorious for a time but eventually she is burned horrifically at the stake by a jubilant English force. Her defeat comes after she has led a murderous attack against Lord Talbot, played with rugged bravado by Keith Bartlett, assisted by his son John Talbot, played by Lex Shrapnel. The exchange between father and son before their inevitable deaths in battle is one of the most moving and poignant moments in the play.
Back in England , the court of James VI is plagued by in-fighting. The Houses of York and Lancaster jostle for power; lords of the realm demonstrate their allegiances by choosing between a white rose and a red rose. These innocent flowers become emblems for the civil conflict to come. Chuk Iwuji is magnificent as the troubled King Henry, uncomfortably wearing the crown of his father, Henry V, and unable to live up to this dead monarch's charismatic image.
Iwuji as Henry VI travels a journey through adolescence to war- and politic-weary monarch; when the king renounces the inheritance of his own son, we see how weak this ruler really is. Henry can only redeem himself by foreseeing the rise of the Tudor line, protecting and nurturing a youthful Henry, Earl of Richmond. It is this young earl who is destined to overthrow the wicked Richard III and found the blood-line of Shakespeare's own monarch, Queen Elizabeth. No wonder this moment of historical fancy is placed so prominently in the hands of the ineffectual Henry VI as if this prognostication alone justifies the bloody wars of his reign.
The narrative continues in Part II, with conspiracy and bloodshed on home ground the order of the day. The Protector of the young King Henry VI, the Duke of Gloucester, played with such dignity by Richard Cordery, is ousted in a political coup. This leaves a vacuum in power and the Houses of Lancaster and York vie to fill it. Clive Wood gives a memorable performance as the natural Plantagenet heir, Richard Duke of York, who, assisted by his sons (which include the deformed Richard and future king), attempts to raise the standard of the white rose triumphant over the English throne. Richard is thwarted by the untimely and politically-arranged marriage of King Henry to the penniless Queen Margaret. Yet again, Katy Stephens plays the malignant woman of the piece; Stephens's Joan of Arc replaced by an equally feisty Margaret, whose machinations allow her to commit that most unqueenlike crime, bloody murder. It is Margaret who, in Part III, deftly dispatches her husband and son's rival, the Duke of York, and it is Margaret who is forced to watch her own son brutally murdered in her arms. Much audience applause greeted Stephens at the end of this long and fascinating day, her performance worthy of specific praise for its intensity and sheer energy.
Of course, the death of York comes only after the Duke has threatened the throne by leading a successful campaign against the Irish (the traditional bêtes noir of every xenophobic Elizabethan) whilst promoting the rebellion of Jack Cade in London itself. Despite his best efforts, the Duke of York is unable to retain his hold on the succession. It is to be his sons who eventually seize the throne with bloody effort.
The rise of the future Richard III is discernible throughout Part III. Jonathan Slinger gives a virtuoso performance as the crippled Richard, desperate not to succeed to this father's inauspicious dukely title. Slinger is forging a great career for himself with the RSC; whenever he is onstage, his presence captivates whether with joyous humour or mali cious malcontedness. The trilogy comes to a fitting end by introducing the villain who is to become Richard III. With knowing recognition, we see the basis for his future wickedness; here is a physically-deformed son of a great egotistical father whose every waking moment has been spent defending his abnormality against attack and derision. A fitting ending to a great group of plays.
The RSC has two triumphs on its hands. The Courtyard Theatre is a worthy addition to the Stratford theatre scene and serves the company well. The Henry VI plays demonstrate how Boyd's vision for the company is coming to fruition; ensemble acting and casting is paying dividends, nurturing and developing new talent and new audiences. These rarely-performed plays, so obviously successful in Shakespeare's own time, demonstrate how exciting and invigorating good theatre can be.
Kevin Quarmby © 2006