Exit Joan of Arc and enter Jack Cade, as The Show Must Go Online barrels from Henry VI, part one straight into Henry VI, part two. Commonly viewed as the best instalment of this particular trilogy, and with the largest collection of characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays, the production was billed with this description: “Illicit affairs. Irish rebellion. Murders. Battles. Black magic. Pirates. THAT Richard.” What more could you possibly ask for?
I have to say again how glad I am that this series has come along and allowed me to experience this trilogy properly; as good as the truncated & amalgamated versions in The Hollow Crown and onstage at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse both were, having the parts split up and done as fully as possible has allowed the storylines to wedge themselves in my head a little better – plus it’s definitely made things clearer and allowed characters to flourish.
Actor, writer, director & self-confessed Margaret of Anjou fan Charlene V. Smith introduced proceedings this time – rather fittingly, as it’s one of her favourites. She spoke about the possibility that there were multiple authors (rather than it being a solely Shakespearean effort), the rumours of which are fuelled by the various publications of the play and the changes in format it shows in the years between versions being set down in black & white. But does it really matter? Smith rightly pointed out that ‘early’ means ‘lesser’ to some, and even more so if other writers were involved – but it’s not as if all of Shakespeare’s later plays were especially tidy at all times, or necessarily conforming to one style. I was glad for the tip-off about paying attention to the way the play goes from large crowds to more intimate moments (and vice versa), as it was intriguing to see and a very powerful tool. There’s also an “exciting” first sighting of the eventual Richard III in this “so dramatically viable” play, which definitely gets you warmed up for what will follow later in the series.
Where were we? Suffolk has brought Margaret of Anjou over to marry the young Henry VI, though they are caught up in a relationship of their own Suffolk wants to gain influence over the King, but the Duke of Gloucester still stands as Lord Protector – however, his wife also covets the throne, and begins dabbling in witchcraft to try and discover what the future holds. The prophecies are vague and left unfinished, as she is arrested before the ritual can be completed and is subsequently banished; Suffolk sees an open goal and his best chance of getting Gloucester out of the way, so he has him imprisoned for treason and murdered before the case can come to trial. Unfortunately for Suffolk, he also ends up being banished and has to part from Margaret, who vows to effect his return to court. Meanwhile, Richard Plantagenet still asserts his claim to the throne and begins to plot a way forward – starting with some rabble rousing from Jack Cade…
This week’s game was to spot the Titanic reference. I know, me neither! Presuming it was related to the film rather than the historical event itself (I was correct in thinking that), I just watched the play unfold instead. So what I’d like to talk about here is casting. Something that has become very important to me over the past few years is gender blind (& other variants on the theme) casting; when Emma Rice took over as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe she introduced the 50:50 policy to ensure a good split of male and female actors, which Michelle Terry has thankfully continued since she took over. At this venue alone this approach has yielded some excellent results: Ankur Bahl as Helenus (from Helena), Katy Owen as Malvolio, Jack Laskey as Rosalind, Sarah Amankwah as Henry V, Steffan Donnelly as Queen Margaret, and Sophie Russell as Richard III. Merely Theatre’s productions are all gender blind, which has also worked brilliantly, with Simon Grujich’s turn as Viola and Hannah Ellis as Mercutio really sticking in my memory. Kathryn Hunter was superb as Timon of Athens at the RSC, and of course Glenda Jackson played King Lear to great acclaim at the Old Vic and on Broadway.
I could go on and on and on… Because I end up having a lot of arguments on this very subject. Mostly they are arguments I could leave well alone (hello, comments section on the Globe Facebook page), but I only get involved because it is something I feel so passionately about. When these plays were written, only men (& boys) could play all of the roles – so arguing that a woman shouldn’t play a male character because it’s “not realistic” simply will not wash. And as the male actors got to play all the great female roles at that time (because there really are a lot of cracking female characters in the canon), why shouldn’t women get to play some of the great male roles now? The approaches that can be taken only serve to open the production up; for example, a woman playing a traditionally male character can consciously play it male, change the character to female, or just play the role as a person – as that’s what we all are really. A mix of ‘male’ & ‘female’ characteristics flung together to make an individual person.
Another first this week: a sword fight brought to us by satellite link! There were also some truly excellent efforts on the costume, makeup & props side of things, with York & Lancaster courtiers sticking as much as possible to the white & red colours of their respective houses, Queen Margaret’s bird of prey (“enter the King, Queen with her hawk on her fist” is now in my list of favourite stage directions), and Jack Baldwin’s commitment to Suffolk & Margaret’s parting scene, painting his nails to match Lynn Favin’s to add a detail that finesses their final embrace. Given the sheer volume of characters, the early innovation of putting the character name in the label on screen came in very handy!
Once again there were so many outstanding performances from the company, with terrific ensemble work from Robert Lightfoot & Patrick McHugh (you never quite knew how they’d appear next), and a confident portrayal of Henry VI from Will Block. Wendy Morgan was truly excellent as Richard Plantagenet (Duke of York), in this medium almost feeling like the Bond villain telling us the whole plan as they try to take over the world. My favourite performance, however, came from Doireann May White as Jack Cade; from the CADE across her fingers to the brilliant prop sword, she had the swagger and confidence of the character down to a tee. Who wouldn’t join this Jack Cade in a revolt? I live in the Blackheath area (mentioned in the play) and was all set to head out & sign up, ready to storm the city and take London for ourselves.
This was an extraordinarily epic production, and I can definitely see why this instalment of the trilogy is so lauded – there really is something for everyone in there. Who’d have thought you’d get pirates and witches in the same play? There are some great lines too, like Dick the Butcher’s “Let’s kill all the lawyers!” and Cade’s “Away with him, away with him – he speaks Latin!”. And as for the trilogy itself, well everything’s just bubbling away nicely – ready for an explosive end as civil war takes a grip of the country…
Next week: Henry VI, part three
Henry VI, part two was broadcast on 8 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.