Following a successful open dress rehearsal project developing Henry VI, part one, the Royal Shakespeare Company is now mounting full productions of Henry VI, part two and Henry VI, part three in its Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Rather than sticking to the traditional numerical names, this second part of Shakespeare’s first Henriad has been renamed Henry VI: Rebellion.
The story begins with Henry welcoming his new bride, Margaret of Anjou, with a boisterous feast that isn’t exactly suited to his calm & reserved temperament – though Margaret immediately feels at home. Her arrival at court has come at a cost, however: significant territory in France that was won by Henry’s father (Henry V) has been given up, and no dowry has been provided. Henry is completely enamoured with Margaret and sees no problem with this, however the senior members of his court are far more shocked at this turn of events – and it only serves to exacerbate the simmering tension between the newly formalised red & white rose factions of Lancaster & York, as well as stoke the ambition of the Lord Protector’s wife, Eleanor (Duchess of Gloucester). Amidst the turmoil of the Duke of Gloucester’s downfall, Richard Plantagenet (Duke of York) makes plain his claim to the throne and secures the support of Salisbury & Warwick in any future plans to oust Henry; when sent to quell a revolt in Ireland, he decides to test the waters by enlisting Jack Cade to stage a rebellion in his absence – this way he would know if he had the people’s support for a takeover…
I really cannot understand why these plays don’t get produced on a more regular basis. Presumably there’s some kind of an assumption that a history trilogy can’t possibly be interesting or varied enough to hold an audience’s attention, however in Rebellion alone there’s piracy, action, romance, magic, and politics all in one three-hour play. What’s not to like?! The quality of this production definitely made me even sadder that the RSC chose not to do full versions of all three plays (Joan of Arc is in part one, that’s all you need to know); I may have been watching a preview, but it was so highly polished & brimming with exceptional performances that you would’ve thought the company was weeks into its run already.
Any of the Shakespeare histories would feel apt for the times that we are living through, but there’s something about the Henry VI trilogy that feels almost too on-the-nose right now. A weak leader, unwilling to take on the proper responsibilities of his post (and quick to surround himself with the least qualified advisors), watches on as the country descends into bloody civil war. *whistles nonchalantly* The only real disparity with our present situation is that Henry VI is incredibly pious and his heart is clearly in the right place, but he’s just not the person for the job – what we have in 2022 is, to quote Dan Stevens, “a criminal for a leader who is wrapped in a messy war, embroiled in a stupid scandal and surrounded by ambitious idiots and really should resign”.
An early mention should go to Stephen Brimson Lewis and Hannah Clark for their set and costume design, respectively; the tone is instantly set as you enter the theatre and see a table decked out with red roses, followed by the company in traditional dress when they make their entrance for the beginning of the play. I’m a big fan of transposing Shakespeare to the present day wherever possible, but I think this one probably works best staying within its own time period. The modern twist in this production comes in the form of video projections on the back curtain, some pre-filmed but others feature live footage – what’s particularly exciting is seeing Jack Cade & his rebels making their way into the fray from backstage via this projection. It all adds to the drama and excitement of the moment, especially when coupled with Paul Englishby’s compositions.
Director Owen Horsley has really captured the epic quality of this saga in his dynamic approach to this play; even if you know the play and/or the history, you are constantly on the edge of your seat as it explodes from scene to scene – act 4 scene 1, in particular, makes a great impression on the audience. My only minor quibble would be that, if you’re sat behind a pillar in the stalls, about 75% of the talking takes place behind those pillars – it’s only when larger groups are on the stage that you see what’s going on. You obviously don’t expect to see everything when you opt for a restricted view seat, however it’s not impossible to make everyone feel that bit more included: Rebecca Frecknall’s staging of Cabaret is a prime example (and why she had to win the Olivier). I’m not marking Rebellion down for this in any way, as I still came away from the show feeling completely exhilarated, but I think it’s worth flagging the full audience experience.
One of the many draws of this play is the appearance of Jack Cade. Far from flawless, a little bit Brexity, and more of an anti-hero than a true role model, you still can’t help but be fascinated by him. Aaron Sidwell channels his Henry V through this unlikely rebel leader, the end result an engaging (but rather less honourable) orator and man of action – you quickly feel yourself wanting to get out of your seat and join him in the revolution. Xenophobic & unenlightened though he is, I’d happily have Jack Cade around to bring down the 1% today.
This play has the largest cast of Shakespeare’s canon, so I can’t possibly name-check every single person involved (especially with the added bonus of the Next Generation Act & Shakespeare Nation community programme actors boosting the numbers), but there are a few more standout performances I will mention. Lucy Benjamin’s haughty Duchess of Gloucester draws some laughter as she stomps on & off the stage, though that soon turns to sympathy as she is royally stitched up and disowned by her husband – Richard Cant, too, cuts a sad figure as the Duke has his own fall from grace. The production is led exquisitely by Minnie Gale (Margaret) and Mark Quartley (Henry VI), their performances expertly highlighting the polar opposite nature of the royal couple; Gale’s Margaret is all action and rushing around the stage, whereas Quartley’s Henry is more contemplative and willing to follow – Richard II without the preceding tyranny.
If you only have the time to catch one of the two Henry VI plays this spring, then I’d plump for this one every time. Gripping from start to finish (and that’s with a three-hour running time – including two breaks!), it’s full of unexpected twists & turns as Shakespeare tackles some of his most immediate history.
My verdict? This exhilarating production will make you wonder why Henry VI is often so overlooked, as this play truly has everything – the casting is absolutely spot-on.
Henry VI: Rebellion runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 28 May 2022. Tickets are available online.