Before George Lucas, there was William Shakespeare. And before Game of Thrones, there were the Henry VI plays. You might presume that all of the history plays were written in chronological order, but Shakespeare in actual fact began with Henry VI and came back to his other Henriad later (much like the original Star Wars trilogy eventually being rebranded as episodes 4, 5 & 6 when Lucas released the prequels) – and all sandwiched by Richard II & Richard III. This is why The Show Must Go Online leapt from The Taming of the Shrew right into the histories this week.
And why Game of Thrones? Well, over the course of the Henry VI trilogy, the Hundred Years War comes to a close and gives way to the Wars of the Roses (or the Cousins’ War) – another tumultuous period in English history wherein two branches of the same family (the Yorks & Lancasters) fought for dominance and, ultimately, the crown. George R. R. Martin took inspiration from these bloody times for his epic fantasy series; if you’re familiar with the books/show but want to learn a bit about the real life characters they were based upon, this is the perfect place to begin.
Author & academic Emer McHugh introduced this week’s instalment, coming more from the angle of theatre & performance history. Henry VI, part one was first performed in March 1592; there is a suggestion that it may actually have been written after parts two & three (making it a prequel, of sorts), and this particular play “doesn’t have a great reputation”. It’s often heavily cut and/or merged with part two, so we’re quite fortunate here to have a more comprehensive version. The play is chock full of conspiracy, crisis & conflict – both internal (York v. Lancaster) and external (England v. France) and sets everything up nicely for the bloody fight for the hollow crown.
So where do we begin? Henry V has died unexpectedly, leaving his infant son Henry VI to inherit the throne – but because of his tender age he will require a guardian for quite some time. Fighting is still ongoing across the Channel, where Lord Talbot (the Constable of France) has been captured; Bedford heads over to provide assistance, whilst Gloucester & Exeter remain in England. The conflict has reached Orléans, where the English are laying siege to the Dauphin Charles’ army – so he ends up recruiting Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc, to you and me) on the basis of her visions and prowess in single combat. Conflict of a different nature threatens home soil, as the courtiers begin to take sides under either the white or red rose. This, and Richard Plantagenet learning he is historically the true heir to the throne, lays the foundations for the ensuing tussle between York and Lancaster for the crown.
The playalong game this week was to spot the “alarums” – but as I didn’t pick out that many at all (despite feeling like I’d paid proper attention) I think I’d like to talk for a bit about historical accuracy. This is the first history in the series, so it’s probably a good idea to hammer this home early on! Like our own historical dramas now (be they films, TV programmes, radio or theatre plays), you absolutely cannot rely on Shakespeare’s histories for the whole truth. They aren’t documentaries, nor were they produced following extensive and wide-ranging research – these are partly propaganda tools, and partly entertainment. Mentioned in one of the discussions was the theme of legacy that forms a major part of this trilogy; when the play was written, Elizabeth I was on the throne – unmarried, childless, and in need of an heir from somewhere. It’s something that would have played on the minds of the Tudor people, particularly in the wake of the chaos that ensued when Henry VIII died, so it has been pushed to prominence in these plays.
It’s not quite my area of expertise (the Wars of the Roses proper, through to the Tudors, is my sweet spot), so I can’t go into too much detail about specific examples of historical innaccuracy – but, from my layperson’s knowledge of Joan of Arc, the character Shakespeare creates doesn’t bear the greatest resemblance to the real thing. Obviously as she’s French that immediately casts her in the villain’s role, and as she’s a woman (& a Catholic) then of course she has to be a full-on witch! Joan and Richard III will be fighting it out for ‘biggest Shakespeare stitch-up’ as far as I can tell. But maybe you should check with Jessica Erin Martin, cast as Joan la Pucelle and coincidentally a massive Joan of Arc nerd! (Her words, not mine!)
One thing I can point out, though, is Henry VI saying he remembered something his father had said; Henry VI was about nine months old when Henry V died, and only about nine years old by the time Joan of Arc was executed. Later in his life he was known for his piety – I’m not sure child prodigy was also on the list.
Despite having one less day of preparation by moving to Wednesday night, the developments keep on coming as the team embraces all that Zoom has to offer. It was absolutely fantastic to see Yarit & Enric back for more fight scenes (battleaxe and all!), and great to have some sword fight sound effects popping up in the background to give more of a battlefield feel – plus the odd musical interlude between scenes was another bonus (this and SFX provided by Richard Hand). There was also some creative use of Zoom filters to bring demonic figures to Joan as she summoned them later on in the play, as well as the visual representation of a battle in process.
What was really superb in terms of casting this week’s production was the way the roles were shared across male & female actors; the greatest result of this, for me, was getting to see Kristin Atherton’s charismatic and powerful performance as the heroic Talbot – I’d love her to get the chance to take on this role on stage at some point. It was also great seeing the many faces of Meg Hodgson, as the play throws up a lot of characters, so there was plenty of makeup & costume changes to contend with (from Vernon to serving man, fiend to soldier). Daniel Cech-Lucas’ Fleabag-inspired #SaucyPriest (Winchester) was a great hit, and Mark McMinn also impressed as the conniving Duke of Suffolk. And there was the first bit of cover action too, as Scott Ellis swung in briefly on a couple of occasions.
As the Globe let me down somewhat by amalgamating all of the Henry VI plays into one, albeit excellent, production, and the RSC’s War of the Roses revival must surely be under threat as a result of this current crisis, I’m very glad to get this chance to see as full a version of these plays as possible at last. It’s such an interesting period of history, which naturally leads to some great drama – and this production has definitely done it justice.
Next week: Henry VI, part two
Henry VI, part one was broadcast on 1 April 2020. The Show Must Go Online runs every Wednesday at 7pm and is also available to watch afterwards. Become a Patron at The Show Must Go Online’s Patreon page.