Henry VI: Wars of the Roses

Henry VI: Wars of the Roses
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

Running in rep alongside Henry VI: Rebellion (a.k.a. Henry VI, part two), the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre is also currently home to Henry VI, part three. As with the previous part, this third play in Shakespeare’s first Henriad has been renamed – going under the title Henry VI: Wars of the Roses.

It picks up where Rebellion leaves off, with Richard Plantagenet vowing to reclaim the throne on behalf of the house of York, citing a stronger claim in his family history. He is backed by the Earl of Warwick (and his considerable army), and eventually brokers a deal with Henry that will see him disinherit Prince Edward in favour of Richard and his own son Edward – this brings an uneasy truce. As you might imagine, Margaret doesn’t take this lying down, taking it upon herself to lead Lancaster troops into battle against Richard; this breaks Henry’s agreement with the Yorkists, but that is soon revoked when their figurehead is killed, and Warwick’s army loses a key battle. Civil war continues to simmer, this time York gaining the upper hand and proclaiming Edward king – all that’s left for him to do is marry and establish a dynasty of his own, but can things ever be that simple..?

It’s understandable that this instalment has been subtitled ‘Wars of the Roses‘ as it is very much to and fro, as each side makes a bid for power and experiences losses along the way. An interesting balance is struck between action and stillness, as mass battle scenes sit right alongside contemplative soliloquies and other moments of reflection; the battles themselves are incredibly well navigated – even with a reasonably-sized cast and a large performance space, it can be a challenge to make them look and feel authentic. The work done by fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams & Ruth Cooper-Brown, in conjunction with Owen Horsley’s direction, creates something rather magnificent to behold. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set design also plays a part, gradually disintegrating and looking more battleworn as we return after each break. For me, there is slightly too much use of cameras & projections in this production – though it does always come back to communicating directly with the audience, you lose a bit of connection the more it happens.

The play’s relevance to the present day is clear to see, especially in the heartbreaking scenes where a son realises he’s killed his father, and a father realises he’s killed his son; though things may not be quite so literally bloodthirsty now, points of difference over Brexit, COVID & many other things have pulled families apart, and generated harmful divides across the country. There’s also an opportunity to consider different styles of leadership, and whether big personalities are worth the upheaval & chaos to install in the seat of power. It seems we find it impossible to learn from our history, time and time again.

Mark Quartley and Minnie Gale deliver fine leading performances once again, as their characters diverge even more – Henry retreating so far into his shell, whilst Margaret leads the charge into battle. Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s Richard Plantagenet has a strong presence, demonstrating both his general leadership skills and his suitability for the throne in increasingly troubled times. Warwick comes slightly more to the fore in this instalment, as he establishes his role as ‘kingmaker’ before coming to a grisly end – and it’s fantastic to see Nick Karimi really taking charge in this role, using his natural (Scottish) accent, especially after the furore caused by one audience member kicking off about Northern Broadsides performing Shakespeare in Yorkshire accents recently. There’s real power in using your own voice where you can, as it organically adds something to the character in so doing.

Last but not least, I have to mention Arthur Hughes; he will be taking to the RST stage again as Richard III in the summer season, and he tees up that production magnificently with his turn as Richard (Duke of Gloucester) here. He is the first disabled actor to take on the role at the RSC (he has radial dysplasia, identifying as ‘limb different’), so he brings an authenticity through his lived experience – but above all he simply gets the character’s proto-villainy and dry humour.

A fitting conclusion to Henry VI’s story, though of course it’s not quite over as far as York vs. Lancaster is concerned. Another high quality production, though of a play that I’m not quite as enamoured with as its predecessor – still absolutely worth investing your time in, however.

Henry VI: Wars of the Roses
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz

My verdict? A balancing act of battles & contemplation, as the bloody consequences of civil war are realised – Arthur Hughes sets things up perfectly for his forthcoming stint as Richard III.

Rating: 4*

Henry VI: Wars of the Roses runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 4 June 2022. Tickets are available online.

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