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May 16, 2011

Henry VI Part One @ The Rose Theatre, Bankside

The Rose on Bankside has been continuing its ongoing series of productions based on the original repertory of Henslowe's theatre. This month sees a particularly special event: an in-house production (as opposed to the usual hosting of young companies) of 1 Henry VI, unusually presented in isolation from the rest of the trilogy. Further, the theatre had negotiated for the use of the entire space of the Rose; so, rather than being restricted to the narrow viewing gallery where the audience sits, the cast were free to use the space of the original Rose foundations. This atmospheric and cavernous space, its base filled with rocks and water, has been an atmospheric backdrop to previous productions, providing a suitably hellish atmosphere for Soliman and Perseda and The Spanish Tragedy, but here it shaped and dictated the creative approach to the production.

The young company, under the direction of Bronagh Lagan, rattled through the play in two hours with no interval, with relatively few major cuts - the dialogue between the gunner and his boy was cut, but John Fastolfe was retained. The major scenes were played immediately before the audience on the viewing platform, but a ledge at the far end of the cavern was frequently brought into play in order to position the two armies facing each other across the lake. Most of the battles were not staged, but as the play pushed towards its climax the soldiers began to occupy the shores of the lake at the bottom of the pit. In this Stygian environment, armies moved in slow motion towards each other, casting huge shadows up the walls, and clashing swords in an evocation of battle rather than a realistic depiction. Phil Webb's lighting design showed off the space to best advantage, and if future productions will be allowed to take similar advantage, the Rose will undoubtedly become one of the most breathtaking venues in London.

There were two disadvantages to the enormous space. The thundering music used for the battle scenes was piped out of speakers on the viewing gallery, and drowned out any concurrent dialogue from the other side of the cavern, a rather obvious oversight. More specific to this play was the disjointedness that inevitably resulted from action switching between areas so far apart from one another. In such an episodic play as 1 Henry VI, the distance meant that even connected sequences were broken up, making the play more difficult to follow. Making up for this was a sense of the scale of the war, subsuming individual actors to the larger movements of the countries.

Performances were solid, managing successfully to differentiate the large number of thinly-drawn characters. The strongest of these was Ben Higgins as Talbot. This grizzled warrior was militaristic and tempestuous, contrasting strongly with the other lords during Henry's coronation in France as he grabbed Fastolfe and shoved him to the floor. The decking on the viewing gallery became his command post, including during one well-choreographed sequence where he huddled with Salisbury behind a railing, looking out over the pit. A couple of figures ran around in the darkness, and one of them held up a light. There was a shout, and then the railings were shaken by an apparent explosion and the two men were thrown to the floor, Salisbury rolling over with blood covering his face. Higgins's strength was in giving a human face to scenes such as these, speaking with the urgency and desperation of the battlefield. In a shouting match with Connor Farrin's John, the production found its most powerful voices as the two men traded rhyming couplets and attempted to push each other away while also holding ground.

Suzanna Marie was a decent Joan, though a little monotonous in her enthusiasm and prone to throw away key lines, particularly in the desperately garbled prelude to her execution. This smug Joan carried a broadsword and laughed in the face of her enemies, supremely confident in her strength. In a beautiful later scene, though, she passed through the fighting masses on the shores of the pit, and walked to the edge of the water where she invocated her spirits. Abandoned by them, her humour and resolve finally faltered, and she shrieked as York and his company beat her into submission and took her sword.

Among the assorted nobles, Oliver Lavery's Gloucester and Morgan Thomas's Winchester stood out. Gloucester was a villain straight out of Victorian melodrama, and the company took advantage of the play's isolation from Part Two to play with the complexities of their feud, rather than portraying Gloucester as heroic against Winchester's villainy. Lavery was spiteful and relished the insults he delivered to his foe. Thomas, by contrast, was a dignified Winchester, standing upright and allowing the insults to wash over him, but then showing his true colours in soliloquy. For Henry's coronation, the two nobles mounted a raised dais alongside the young King, and Gloucester handed Winchester the crown. There was a pause as they shared a look, before turning to present a unified front to the other nobles.

Isaac Jones was a tremendous Henry, showing the young King's vulnerability and indecisiveness. He vacillated and simpered, while maintaining a consistency in his basic virtue. He pleaded desperately with his uncles to stop their followers down in the pit throwing stones at one another, and Gloucester's orders were followed by one of them throwing a large rock at the barriers, the noise of which sent Henry cowering to the floor. Yet he came into his own as the play went on, delivering summary judgement against traitors and standing up against Gloucester after Suffolk's report of Margaret.

There were too many episodes to describe each one individually, but a special mention must go to the two scenes of desolation played out in the distant corners of the pit. David Vaughan-Knight languished on the shore as Mortimer, as Richard stood above him and questioned him, and later Talbot adopted a similar position as he cradled the body of his son and passed away. The physical distance of these scenes did not detract from their power, and they were in fact heightened by the isolation of the figures within the consuming blackness.

The success of other roles was variable. Samuel Lewis was excellent, if a little too scenery-chewing, in a succession of noble, vaunting roles including Bedford, Warwick and Lucy, bringing a gravitas and dogged resolution to the battle scenes and especially to the final condemnation of Somerset. Steven Clarke and James Clifford were effective as York and Somerset, although their bickering (particularly in the final scenes) didn't feel as central as it might. Clarke in particular, though, grew into the role following his conversation with Mortimer, and brought out the character's noble frustration, in opposition to Somerset's more conniving treachery. Amy Barnes, as the Duchess of Auvergne, played far more to the audience than was really needed, but offered entertaining relief from the main plot in her short scene, which culminated with her quailing while surrounded by spears and swords. Once raised to her feet by Talbot, she was rather turned on by the whole experience, and led him offstage with a wink. The French weren't very clearly differentiated, which was a shame as all the actors were decent, but were perhaps ill-served by so many of their scenes being performed on the far side of the space.

The star of the show, however, remained the theatre itself. Joan's execution was held back until the final scene. As Suffolk left the stage, the a single light came up in the middle of the lake, and Joan began edging her way across some planks towards it. Smoke began billowing up, and Joan was lost in smoke and orange light, a visually effective burning and a powerful image on which to close the play. While not a perfect production, the Rose reclaimed the play as a stand-alone piece and pushed the limits of what could be achieved within the space, and if nothing else, this production will be hugely influential in determining how the Rose itself can use its unique features to enhance productions and inspire new audiences.

March 03, 2008

Henry VI Part 1 @ The Courtyard Theatre: Highlights

Arrived back in Leamington Spa at 12.30am after Henry V, stayed at a friend’s house (got a few hours sleep) before running for the 9am train to get back to the Courtyard for 10.30am. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I wasn’t feeling my freshest. I mention this because the Henry VI trilogy are so amazing that they jerked me completely awake and kept me enthralled all day. I’ve seen Part 1 three times before, this being the fourth, and yet I still saw new things all day. Here’s the highlights:

  • Julius D’Silva as Lucy was wonderful. His mannered rhetoric was spoken in a voice that expertly handled the verse and brought out the character’s frustration at the arguing peers. D’Silva is quite possibly my favourite actor of the whole ensemble, bringing something unique even to his most minor parts, and he shone throughout.
  • From this play onwards, the significance of stones was more apparent, with Roger Watkins’ Mortimer giving York (Clive Wood) one in token of his claim to the throne. This stone would reappear in a bag with many others in Part II, as York made his pitch to Warwick and Salisbury.
  • After some minor parts in the previous four plays, Katy Stephens reclaimed the stage. Her performance as Joan was brilliant; whether flicking blood at the English from Bedford’s severed arm, smiling seductively at the French lords or screaming defiance at York as she descended into a fiery pit. Her performance was commanding – she owned the stage whenever she was on it, standing centrally as men fell over themselves before her.
  • The Dauphin (John Mackay) was a camp highlight again, flouncing about the stage. The point about his and Joan’s nighttime antics was reinforced this time when both appeared in the dark barely dressed, with Mackay’s cheeks exposed to good (if gratuitous!) comic effect.
  • Lex Shrapnel and Keith Bartlett impressed with their handling of the very artificial dialogue between Talbot and his son. The rhyming lines sound awkward to modern ears, very formulaic, but the two actors met this head on, constructing out of them a deeply-felt argument. Bartlett’s scream of “Your mother”, as he described the impact of bad news on his wife, was a wrenching moment, not a little reminiscent of his excellent turn as Northumberland in 2 Henry IV.
  • Henry VI is a very difficult part to play, but Chuk Iwuji made a beautiful job of the young king, hugging Gloucester (Richard Cordery) around the waist and running to greet the heroic Talbot who he had heard so much about. The childlike innocence with which Iwuji invested the character had a real impact after his more eerie and adult appearances in Richard II and Henry V, showing the actor’s skill.
  • One of the stalwarts of the whole cycle was Tom Hodgkins. While never taking one of the truly lead parts, Hodgkins was regularly cast as powerful soldiers, second-in-commands or princes, and I was really conscious over the five days of the excellent work he was doing, creating a strong military presence personified in one man that almost always indicated the winning side. His turn as Bedford in this production was one of the highlights though, screaming in pain as he threw open the grave of Henry V to invoke his spirit against the French before his dignified death.
  • Miles Richardson, another of the strong ensemble players, similarly had his moment here as Exeter. His warning soliloquies had a choric function, but Richardson brought a sense of loyal care to the part, a voice of conscience on the country’s behalf that put things into perspective. He also had one of the most effective speaking voices, a deep and clear voice that gave his character an unequalled dignity.
  • The three demons (Ann Ogbomo, Alexia Healy and Hannah Barrie) were a nice presence throughout, but the really chilling aspect of them was their humming, a three tone note that underscored Joan’s conjuring.
  • I’ll save more detailed discussion until the next part, but Geoffrey Streatfeild’s plain-speaking and smooth Suffolk, Richard Cordery’s upright and uptight Gloucester and Geoffrey Freshwater as a sneering and sarcastic Winchester all did sterling work leading up to their bigger roles in Part II.
  • A few other nice touches included: Chris McGill as a panicking soldier comforted by Talbot; Antony Bunsee’s stirring defiance of Talbot’s troops as he told them of the approaching French, his voice rising to a spinechilling crescendo; and the earthy Warwick (Patrice Naiambana) kicking away Joan’s charms after her failed conjuration, a nice touch showing Warwick’s no-nonsense approach. A special mention, to, to the second half entrance of the French, particularly James Tucker commando-rolling onto the stage with dagger between his teeth!

Part I is the part of the trilogy that works best on its own, having in Joan and Talbot a very nice through line that completes itself. As the start of a long day, though, this production also left me hanging on for more, particularly in knowing that the character arcs started here would culminate dramatically before the end of the day. By itself, though, a fabulous and richly detailed production.

February 10, 2007

Henry VI Part 1 @ The Courtyard Theatre

Last night’s trip was a jolly really- a third viewing of the first part of Michael Boyd’s ‘Henry VI’ trilogy, just for fun! I’d really wanted to see all three ‘Henries’ and ‘Richard III’ in sequence, but timing hasn’t allowed, and I’m sure I’ll get the chance in 2008 when the company play eight history plays in sync!

Yet again, it was wonderful, and the company seemed to be enjoying themselves, which I suppose is an imperative when you’re required to perform three different plays the following day! It was lovely to see the Courtyard relatively full as well, which hasn’t happened very often so far.

It’s all coming to a big climax now, with the end of the Festival in just over a month. ‘Richard III: An Arab Tragedy’ and the London production of ‘Antony & Cleopatra’ await this week, then the week after sees the Polish work-in-progress production of ‘Macbeth’ and the big Sonnet project, ‘Nothing Like The Sun’. The last play in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, ‘Coriolanus’, finishes off February, followed three days later in the Swan by Cheek By Jowl’s excellent Russian ‘Twelfth Night’. We then drop to one play a week, seeing ‘As You Like It’, ‘Venus and Adonis’ and a repeat viewing of ‘The Tempest’ in quick succession. Then I pop off to Edinburgh for a few days, and return for a final pair of big-hitters, ‘The Merchant Of Venice’ and ‘King Lear’, which I’m seeing on the 30th of March.

I haven’t actually thought about what I’m going to do with this blog when the Festival finishes. I enjoy writing it, and I have plans to start going to productions further afield (which I can’t really justify at the moment thanks to the amount I’m spending at the RSC!), so it may turn into a more general theatre-going blog. Anyway, that’s something to think about nearer the time!

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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