The first The Show Must Go Online trilogy comes to an end. After Jack Cade ran riot in last week’s Henry VI, part two, the stage was set for the Wars of the Roses proper. Though this is one of the histories, it almost falls under the category of revenge tragedy with its backstabbing betrayals, meteoric rises & subsequent falls, and an awful lot of death. An ambitious piece, especially in this emerging medium.
Director Owen Horsley gave this week’s introduction, having particular expertise in this area after immersing himself in this set of plays for the RSC’s Wars of the Roses series. “The epic saga comes to an end”, as Horsley explains that things pick up almost exactly where they left off at the end of part two; it’s a “thrilling and exciting” war of words and sequence of battles (the most in any Shakespeare play) that also shows the emergence of Richard III. There’s an interesting “journey of language” throughout the trilogy, going from chivalric through political, ambitious & manipulative, plain/direct speaking, revenge, and finally becoming more about self-interest. Horsley is finding that this medium enhances how the language comes across, which makes this journey more apparent as a viewer. This play also sees Shakespeare at his most “Tarantino-esque”, so thought was definitely going into all aspects of storytelling in this “bombastic” play.
For the first time in the series the performance came with trigger warnings (loud noises, violence, gore & war crimes – including against children), showing the state of play as well as the team’s intent in the production.
The play begins with a to and fro between York and Lancaster, though this time in the throne room rather than on the battlefield. Richard Plantagenet is asserting his right to the crown and has brought his supporters to back him up; rather than have things erupt into violence, Henry VI comes to an agreement with York – he will remain king, but upon his death the monarchy will pass over to York and his family. Queen Margaret does not take kindly to this as it disinherits her son, Prince Edward; she rallies Lancaster forces and heads off to fight York again, breaking one of the conditions of the pact – though gaining the upper hand, as they end up winning the battle and forcing Henry to withdraw from the agreement entirely. They also exact revenge on York by first killing his youngest son (Rutland) and then York himself; far from ending things, this merely stokes the Plantagenets’ fire, as Edward & Richard’s brother George joins the cause to avenge their father’s death and claim the crown. With the three sons of York united, and Warwick alongside them with his own brother Montague, the Yorkists win the Battle of Towton – this decisive victory allows Edward to claim the throne. Warwick is quick to realise that alliances need to be formed to secure Edward IV’s position, so heads to France to ask Louis XI for the Lady Bona’s hand in marriage (Louis’ sister-in-law) on Edward’s behalf. Back in England, however, Edward is about to complicate matters when he crosses paths with the widow Lady Grey…
This week’s game was ‘spot the betrayals’ – now that’s much more my thing! Henry VI, part three is packed full of betrayal of all shapes & sizes, and what’s so wild about it is that (by & large) this is Shakespeare in one of his more truthful moods. The real story behind the Wars of the Roses really doesn’t need that much of a touch-up. And it’s not as though we, in the 21st century, have ever quite rid ourselves of such provocative language. Remember Brexit? The Daily Mail branded a group of judges “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE” and the House of Lords “traitors” at what they perceived to be attempts to thwart Brexit – ignoring the fact that there is a legal process that needs to be adhered to.
Back to Shakespeare! First you have the switching of allegiances; Warwick has been a Yorkist from the outset, but personal honour becomes more important when Edward IV disregards all diplomatic efforst and chooses his own bride – he then tempts George Plantagenet over to Lancaster’s side by offering his daughter’s hand in marriage, though this is short-lived as George remembers his loyalty to his father & brother. Henry VI, too, betrays his family in his agreement with York, as it disinherits his son. Louis XI also betrays his kin, Margaret, by initially consenting to Edward IV’s betrothal to Lady Bona (opting to ally with the force in power), but this obviously doesn’t last when he discovers Edward has married Lady Grey off his own bat.
Another big thread in this play (and part two, to a certain extent) is the establishment of the Richard “crookback” legend, that proved to be such effective propaganda that the truth about Richard III was practically lost for centuries. Richard begins to betray Edward & George in thought, confessing to the audience his desire to sit on the throne himself, before setting off a chain of events that will leave no other choice of monarch but him. His final action in this play is to sneak off and kill Henry VI – something that can be spun as him trying to secure his brother’s throne, but really marks the first of several obstacles Richard must clear to claim the crown.
I have loved every production in the series, but this has definitely become my new favourite. The play is so fast-paced, full of drama & action, and is surprisingly accessible; the team continue to do an astounding job in bringing it all to life. From casting such an array of actors, to the company’s unwavering commitment to their characters – plus the music, sound effects & graphics that now come as standard. York’s final resting place after Margaret & Clifford have dealt with him was one of the more memorable uses of this technology.
I’ve enjoyed that this trilogy has consistently cast female actors as Warwick (Maryam Grace, Alix Dunmore & Allie Croker) – his nickname was “Kingmaker”, so it’s quite satisfying seeing women take on that pivotal role. Ruth Page as Clifford was also particularly engaging, demonstrating an insatiable desire for revenge and excelling in the more physical & visual moments. By contrast, David Johnson was a quite calming & assured presence as the ill-fated Henry VI, delivering his speeches beautifully. Ashley Byam was increasingly sinister as Richard III, also capturing the dark humour that is key to the character – and this medium works rather well at building up the intimacy between Richard and his confidantes, the audience. Excellent work also from young actors Scarlett Archer and Hector Bateman-Harden as Rutland/Richmond & Prince Edward; both took to the medium very well, and put in exceptional performances – especially considering some of the acts committed against their characters!
We don’t have too long to wait for Richard III to get the Show Must Go Online treatment and bring the Wars of the Roses narrative to a close, but for now the first set of histories is done. It was definitely an eye-opening trilogy; I’m thrilled to have finally seen Henry VI in pretty much its entirety, and I think I’ve been proved correct in my assertion that this is an incredibly fascinating period in history – it’s such a shame it’s not deemed important enough to be taught in schools. And in terms of this series, it’s been a pleasure to see things build up each week into grander & more epic productions. Bring on the pies..!
Next week: Titus Andronicus
Henry VI, part three was broadcast on 15 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.