Review – Henry VI (Harry the Sixth, The Houses of York & Lancaster and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York) – Globe Theater on original battlefields

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While some people might consider casting elderly American actors as romantic leads the height of novelty for Shakespearean productions, I was far more convinced by the idea of not just seeing three related plays in the same day but ON THE VERY SITES where the events mentioned in the plays took place. Tewkesbury, Towton, Saint Albans, Barnet – these towns are written into the fabric of English history like Gettysburg and Shiloh are for American. Thus the Globe’s “Henvry VI Battlefield performances” caught my eye (and at 45 quid for three plays, they seemed quite affordable). St. Alban’s was close enough to not be too expensive to visit from London. But could I stomach 10 hours of plays in one day? HELL YEAH.

Thus it was, with picnic packed, my husband, housemate and I descended upon the lawn surrounding St. Alban’s church (formerly cathedral, please talk to Henry VIII if you have a problem with this) … only to discover the first thirty feet or so from the stage was ALREADY TAKEN with people in HIGH BACKED CHAIRS. Our location (sitting on a blanket) meant we were nearly fully blocked from seeing the actors, if standing, from below the waist; while I had hopes that the two towers on each side of the stage might get a lot of use, they were almost exclusively occupied during battle scenes. While we were still able to hear 80-90% of the dialogue, this was reduced to about 60% after the sun set, when the noise from the generators started to cancel out the actors’ voices. This was further complicated by an excess of deathbed speeches during The True Tragedy of the Duke of York – as the actors were prone (if dying) or kneeling (if talking to the nearly, or newly, dead), the wall of heads and chairs between their mouths and our ears meant, well, Henry’s “Oh pity, pity, gentle heaven, pity!/The red rose and the white are on his face/The fatal colours of our striving houses”speech was lost. And thus, in this review, I am not really able to provide a recap of the three shows and the acting, but I shall do my best to relate the experience of seeing these plays in this environment.

With three plays in one day, I thought I would be wise to get a program, and it was, actually, very helpful, having both family trees (let’s just say Shakespeare apparently took liberties but there are still about three people named Richard to sort out) and plot summaries, not to mention some very helpful background information about the publication of the play, actual history, and other good things. I would have been really lost without it as, in addition to the scene in which everyone is named Bruce* (and then dies), there were a limited selection of actors to work with, even during a single play. I was really only able to focus on Henry VI (the mopey guy in all three plays: Graham Butler), Humphrey (Duke of Gloucester and Henry VI’s protector: Garry Cooper), and the two main women, the ass-kicking Joan of Arc (Beatriz Romilly) and the also ass-kicking Margaret of Anjou (Mary Doherty).
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Joan of Arc featured heavily in the first play (and, well, was burned at the stake at the end, so not much chance of coming back later); she was responsible for the ONE AND ONLY instance of sword wielding female Shakespearean character I’ve ever seen, which was great! Now, I know these plays were really working hard to whip up anti-French sentiment (it was about like listening to modern politicians blame immigrants for Britain’s woes), but I could not really find room in my heart to do anything other than love Joan of Arc just as wholeheartedly as I fell for the cowgirl in Toy Story. Not only did she fight AND WIN with her sword, she was an inspiring leader and a killer strategist to boot. So for me, the high point of Harry the Sixth were the scenes with Joan of Arc – though I really just couldn’t buy into for the witchcraft scene at the end, it was so out of character – pure anti-French propaganda.

In summary, play one of the day was fairly action packed with lots of sword fighting and not too many speeches. When it finished, we ate our lunch and then had a fair amount of time to walk around; I went inside the church and saw the actual grave of Humphrey. That was very exciting, really full circle for the historical reality and the iambic fictionalization! I also learned that the reason the building was still standing was that the people of the town had bought it from the state for 400 quid after the dissolution of the monasteries to keep as a town church; thank you for your foresight, St Albanians! (Note: there was plenty of time to go out and get food, which was good as there were no snack or drinking facilities on site, though nearly enough bathrooms.)

Some 60 or so minutes later, it was on to play two. The program warned that The Houses of York and Lancaster (the first written of all of these plays, created early in Shakespeare’s career and apparently only as co-author) consisted of “domestic broils,” and I found this one hard work to track. Aside from Margaret, her (supposed) lover Suffolk (Roger Evans), Henry, and Humphrey, the characters became a blur; Suffolk transitioned into rabble-rouser Jack Cade, there are two Richards, two Clarences, and a second Goucester; somebody named Somerset shows up. What stuck was 1) Good guy Gloucester dead (sad!) 2) bad guy Suffolk dead (no tears) 3) queen getting uppity 4) Henry not in control 5) “kill all the lawyers” (and anyone else who can write) 6) several different people say they are king. Many, many deaths, and the only reason Jack Cade’s was memorable was because it brought to mind Kage Baker’s fabulous first novel, In the Garden of Iden. IT WAS ALL JUST TOO MUCH. And there were no dragons so I wasn’t seeing the similarity between this and Game of Thrones (rumor: original title “Game of Thorns”). Yet, still, king on the run; where was this going to go? Per the family tree, he had a son; yet also it’s clear that his “successor” was an Edward, followed by a Richard! So where did the “two princes in the tower” come in, and what about all of the other people Richard was going to bump off? I’d just have to wait until after supper to find out.

And here the crisis of the day occurred. Not only had we neglected to pack a bottle of wine, but the roast chicken we’d prepared the day before had not made it into the hamper. Fortunately the cafe at the cathedral had stayed open late, so we were able to remedy our failings.

So, full of sausage roll and cheap white wine, we prepared for the end of our day of theater. The True Tragedy of the Duke of York (interestingly after watching the play I don’t actually know what the tragedy was) for me was extra fun because of the role of Queen Margaret. Shakespeare may have have dubbed her a she-wolf, but she was simply a tornado, filling the breach of power created when her husband failed to step up. She was roundly abused (possibly by York?) as being unwomanly, but, in my eyes, she was 100% queen. It was hard for me to see her actions as selfish or cruel; to me, she was fighting for stability and the rule of law. In contrast, Edward is the one who woos one wife while marrying another; no surprise, really, that he’d send his brother to do his dirty work in killing the lawful (if useless) monarch. And this scene, in which Henry upbraids Richard for being twisted in spirit as well as body, was a highlight of the play, not to mention a great setup for the “fourth” play: look at that wonderful final tableau, with uncle Richie cuddling his little baby nephew. Peace in our times, eh? Maybe not yet.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, August 11th, 2013. The final battlefield performance of these three plays will take place at 12:30 Sunday, August 24th, in Barnet: expect the show to run until about 10 PM.)

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