Henry VI Parts One, Two and Three, The Globe, 13 May 2012
The Globe to Globe festival had hit upon the idea of getting the national theatres of Serbia, Albania and Macedonia to perform Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy. The troubled past of the Balkans made this seem an apt combination: countries recently torn by civil strife presenting Shakespeare’s dramatisation of an analogous period in English history.
But instead of using the occasion to comment on their own societies, these companies simply delivered a thrilling and (mostly) high-quality trio of productions that showcased their theatrical prowess rather than dwelling on their political problems.
The atmosphere of Part One, staged by the Serbs, was dominated by a youthful, witty creativity; while the stage itself was dominated by a huge metal round table, whose individual sections could be moved and rearranged. The table came with matching metal chairs.
Unusually for the grim subject matter, there was a healthy dose of tasteful comedy to lighten the gloom.
Before the start of the performance some of the cast gradually entered and lay motionless on top of the table as if asleep. Winchester walked around the table in a wide circle and when he began to speak, the others woke up and sat on the chairs.
News of the French revolt was brought by comical messengers who jumped up onto the table.
As the action moved to France, the pressure on King Charles was made tangible by the English, who had moved to the edge of the rectangular stage, rapping their metal chairs with their fingers.
The King lay on top of the table, his face twisted in pain. Relief came when Joan (Jelena Djulvezan), in chainmail headgear and a blonde plaited ponytail, emerged from under the table by pulling a section of it apart and took the King underneath.
Once beyond the table, she explained her plan to combat the English. She escorted the King round the encircling English and silenced them one by one until the tapping had completely stopped.
Some of the chairs were placed on the table to form the wall of the Tower to which Gloucester was barred admittance.
This bank of chairs then became the walls of Orleans. Talbot sat on the table with his men, who mimed the use of anachronistic cigarettes and a harmonica, and told them how he had escaped. The cannonball strike was represented by Joan sweeping away the chair wall onto the stage as all the English fell dead.
The solitary figure of Talbot was confronted by Joan, who was backed by an entire line of French soldiers. They stood packed together right behind her and mirrored her movements in the slow motion battle as if a single unit. Talbot struck at Joan with his sword, but Joan deflected it with strokes of her hand. An accordion played the Piaf song “Milord” to signify that the city had been taken by the French. Impressed by her achievements, Charles wooed Joan and smothered her with kisses.
The table was separated into its individual sections for the Temple Garden scene with its argument about the succession. As each of the nobles took sides, they smeared their forehead with either red or white paint to indicate their allegiance.
Comedy was also injected into the otherwise dry scene in which the imprisoned Mortimer explained to Richard Plantagenet that he was the rightful heir. While Mortimer and his companion sat at the centre of some upturned tables, the story of his disinheritance was acted out in mime by the comic messengers.
The vicious argument in Parliament saw the two sides, still with their factional face paint, engage each other with loud mocking disdain. This mockery verged on the comical.
The first substantial appearance by the King (Hadži Nenad Maričić), who was officious and managerial, resolved the argument.
Burgundy lay on a table section while Joan tried to convince him of the threat posed by the English, which was represented by more English chair tapping. Her attempted succeeded.
After the interval, the table sections were arranged into a long line along which were strung out the English forces arrived in France. The King honoured Talbot at one end, while further down the line Vernon and Bassett argued with each other.
Joan was captured and put in the hole at centre of the reconstructed round table. Her English accusers tapped their chairs as she circled to address them in turn. She finally ducked down below the table, a movement which represented her burning at the stake.
Suffolk sat at the centre of the upturned tables reading a magazine with Margaret of Anjou on the cover. The photo was of the actress who would play her in Part Two. Suffolk revealed his plan to hold sway in the kingdom through her.
Comedy was also present in the epilogue to Part One. The messengers retold the story using the casket containing Henry V’s ashes, which they accidentally spilt on ground. They scrambled to scoop them up again, sweeping the remainder under an upturned table.
The production from the National Theatre of Albania was darker and less funny. It featured a dusky young Margaret (Ermira Hysaj) and a wide-eyed Henry (Indrit Çobani), who seemed less forceful and effective than his Part One counterpart.
This company had the disadvantage of staging the middle of the trilogy, which did not contain so many battles as part three. The absence of the huge table, together with a less polished performance style, made their offering look a bit threadbare. The costumes were faintly reminiscent of alien Star Trek uniforms.
The performance began puzzlingly with some of the cast racing across the stage on kick scooters for no apparent reason.
After the first scene in which Gloucester vented his dislike of the peace settlement, and factions developed supporting and opposing him, the action moved to Gloucester’s house. His wife Eleanor (Yllka Mujo) dressed up in front of a mirror and fantasised about being queen, holding a sceptre, which Gloucester soon took from her.
John Hume, who told Eleanor that he would arrange a séance to summon dark forces to aid her ambition, cackled when he revealed that he was in the pay of Winchester and Suffolk, who planned to discredit her. His words were accompanied by a clarinet played by a man weaving his way through the yard.
Thin and brittle Margaret dropped her fan and complained when Eleanor refused to pick it up, which was just part of the general mood of opposition to her pretensions and her husband’s perceived ambitions.
The séance was made mysterious with the aid of a smoke machine and gyrating spirits were conjured. But all those present were arrested, with the King arriving to personally inspect the treasonous activity.
Eleanor was banished and her slow departure from the stage in a white dress was very moving.
With the loss of France confirmed, Gloucester was himself arrested for treason.
York set off to quell the Irish rebellion and was full of glee at his plot to use Jack Cade to stir discontent in England in support of his cause.
The murder of Gloucester was staged by an empty bed being spun round, with the spinners letting go to reveal that their hands were red with blood.
The Suffolk was banished for the murder of Gloucester and after the interval he was captured by a comical looking pirate with a red eye-patch.
Jack Cade went down into the yard in an attempt to get the groundlings to cheer him, as did his supporters. His pretentious airs, claiming royal descent, were quite funny. Even the attack on the Clerk of Chatham for wearing glasses was humorous.
A blind girl with a stick wandered the stage throughout this sequence, which was characterised by a clumsily choreographed progress to London. The actors rampaged in slow motion, sometimes onstage, sometimes only visible through the tiring house doors.
The common people were swayed back and forth in their allegiance, but eventually Cade was killed and a cabbage was produced in a string bag representing his head. This was either just a cheap prop, or a clever and subtle comment on the fact that Cade had been killed in a garden.
York finally showed his hand in open defiance to Henry, backed by his sons.
This production’s Richard of Gloucester was not particularly well-developed, which did not matter because he had not yet fully emerged as a significant character. He merely dragged his foot along the ground to indicate his limp.
The ensuing Battle of St. Albans was staged by rows of soldiers representing the battle symbolically. At the end Young Clifford carried a cloak representing his father, slain by York.
The offering from the National Theatre of Macedonia came as a welcome relief after the relative disappointment of Part Two.
Henry (Petar Gorko) was now older and more care-worn. Both Warwick and the French King Lewis were played as women by women (Sonja Mihajlova & Kristina Hristova Nikolova respectively).
But this production’s Margaret (Gabriela Petrushevska) was its linchpin, a dazzling presence in red stilettos and Sheena Easton hair, whose emotional intensity made her the focus of any scene she was in.
Dressed in a frilled deep cut top, with the ever-present red stilettos, Margaret berated Henry after he had ceded the crown to York’s sons. Her bond with her son Prince Edward was emphasised all the way through the production, making his eventual death and her resulting distress all the more agonising.
The first battle against the Yorkists at Wakefield was a stylised conflict with sticks. Soldiers stood in pairs side by side killing each other. During this battle Clifford killed York’s son Rutland.
Margaret wore a blue dress uniform (and those stilettos). She taunted the captured York with a cloth stained with Rutland’s blood and stuck a paper crown on his head, representing his ambitions.
All this time, Prince Edward (Nikolche Projchevski) stood behind his mother with his chin on her shoulder to emphasise their strong bond. Margaret pushed York onto the point of a stick, killing him. His body fell to the ground and a life-like replica of his severed head was extracted from a suitcase to symbolise his decapitation. The head was then placed high up on the Globe balcony.
Edward (Ognen Drangovski) carried a drum hung around his neck and noisily demanded the crown, which led into the Battle of Towton. This Lancastrian defeat saw the two armies run at each other and all fall to the ground, creating a large group of dead bodies centre stage.
This slaughter caused the thoughtful Henry to reflect in soliloquy on the pointlessness of war, looking very teary and emotional. A son killed his father on one side of Henry and the reverse occurred the other side. Clifford entered with a stick held to his neck, representing the arrow that was shortly to kill him. He was then beheaded, after which the Yorkists placed his replica head on the balcony and removed York’s.
Gamekeepers with fishing rods angled for fish in the yard before capturing the fleeing Henry and tying him up in the rod thread. Henry used a red (Lancastrian) feather to demonstrate the ease with which the common people had been swayed against him.
The newly crowned Edward IV received a petition from Lady Grey (Valentina Gramosli), to whom he took an instant fancy. This did not go unnoticed by his brothers Richard and George who made lascivious remarks about their dalliance. The matter was settled when Edward picked Lady Grey up and carried her off to make her queen.
This production’s Richard (Martin Mirchevski) was short and walked with a realistic limp. Having seen his brother Edward at work with Lady Grey, he addressed the audience revealing his own ambitions for the throne. His anger simmered, but he was in control of himself.
The production continued after the interval with a gloriously entertaining scene set in the French court to which Margaret and Warwick had both travelled to get support.
A large table stood centre stage at which Margaret sat looking the worse for drink. She was accompanied by her son Edward, the female Warwick, Lady Bona (Valentina Gramosli again) and the female King Lewis.
Margaret was drowning her sorrows after Warwick had succeeded in forging a dynastic marriage between Edward and Lady Bona, who sat at the end of the table in a pretty dress looking winsome.
Having also imbibed, Edward ended up with his head in King (Queen?) Lewis’ lap.
Lady Bona was extremely happy at the prospect of becoming queen of England, which explained her snivelling disappointment when a messenger brought news of Edward’s intended marriage to Lady Grey. The news also caused Warwick to change sides and support Margaret.
This scene was interesting because apart from Prince Edward all the actors on stage were women.
Margaret and Warwick returned to England to fight. At the Battle of Edgecote, the Yorkist guards were surprised and the tiring house doors were flung open to reveal Edward with his trousers down and Lady Grey wrapped round him.
This setback for Edward resulted in Henry being freed, with Warwick and George as protectors. Henry was in contemplative mood, dressed in white and reading a book.
Edward escaped and raised an army. Further conflict resulted in the recapture of Henry.
The Battle of Barnet saw Warwick being spun round and stripped of her outer garments before being struck dead by soldiers making stylised hand strokes, while other soldiers engaged in a stylised fight at one side.
The final Battle of Tewkesbury took the stylisation of conflict to a whole new level as the imagery in the production became more poetic.
The Yorkists brought black balloons on stage, held in position by weighted strings.
Margaret stood near the edge of the yard stage left in her trademark red stilettos and a bright red dress, shedding petals which formed a large red pile on the ground beneath her.
The balloons were burst to represent the Lancastrian defeat. Margaret’s beloved son Edward was killed as red ribbon was drawn from his jacket symbolising his blood. Distraught at this spectacle, Margaret unpinned her hair allowing it hang loose, and smeared her mascara and lipstick. The intensity of her emotion in this stylised setting was captivating. Her trauma at Edward’s death led to her being dragged away from him through the tiring house doors.
Richard killed Henry in the Tower by throwing red paint over him in a simple but effective sequence. He spoke to the audience in soliloquy about his intended rise to power. His matter of fact attitude made him look warm and engaging.
The final scene saw Queen Elizabeth cradle a cushion bearing a single white rose symbolising the newborn Prince Edward, whom all the York brothers kissed.
As Richard exited by the tiring house doors, he briefly turned back at the audience and grinned conspiratorially before he closed the door behind him.
Despite being spread across three different companies, casts and languages, the trilogy had been coordinated so that the main characters appeared to age and the mood darkened progressively.
The wit and comedy of Part One contrasted with the intensity and poetic imagery of Part Three establishing an overall grand narrative of tone.