Harry reigns over a triple bill

Henry VI (Graham Butler, in blue, enthroned) with Queen Margaret (Mary Doherty, in red) and Gloucester (Garry Cooper, far right)

Henry VI Parts I, II and III

Malvern Festival Theatre


You would have thought Shakespeare’s Globe and its several actor teams would be all tied up during August, offering the Bard to London’s glut of theatregoing summer visitors. Indeed even this Henry VI can be seen on the south bank during two periods in August and September (21-25 Aug, 3-8 Sept).

But imagine what a treat it was to find one of those ensembles – a very gifted and versatile one – venturing out on the road to offer all three of Shakespeare’s (or whoever’s) Henry VI plays in the Midlands, at Malvern’s Festival Theatre.

I suppose for those not overenthusiastic about lessons in English medieval history, parts of this trio of scripts could seem pretty boring. I wallow in such drudgery, and can never get enough of who begat whom, who had what claim to the throne and who ultimately (usually Richard of Gloucester) chopped whose heads off.

There’s a lot of all three in the Henry plays, containing more good lines than you’d think, and performed more often than you might imagine (the exemplary packed programme notes, scrupulously detailed and informative, are especially good on this: Peter Hall and John Barton’s The Wars of the Roses sequence at the RSC, both in Stratford and at London’s Aldwych, was the most celebrated, and David Warner’s subsequent saintly dreamer perhaps the most famous of all Henry VIs). Michael Boyd’s Bosnia-influenced Stratford production (2000, 2006) is given special mention.

Enterprisingly, this triple whammy of a Globe show has already been staged in the open air at four Wars of the Roses Battlefields – Towton, Tewkesbury, Barnet and St. Albans.

Shakespeare pirates from various sound-ish sources, just as he does from Holinshed for the tragedies: there’s too much clash of arms and blood and guts, arguably, something this production with its gongs and tympani played intermittently rearstage, with impressive rhythmic finesse, by all members of the cast (somewhat exhausting ‘score’ by Alex Baranowski, who recently did Michael Grandage’s The Cripple of Inishmaan) does little to alleviate: Part I – Harry the Sixth – suffered worst from constant bangings, and was prefaced abysmally by Mary Doherty (later a pretty magnificent ‘she-wolf of France’ - Margaret of Anjou) being asked to sing a ‘touching’ song and being in no way trained or the task. Pathetic, out of tune and best out of mind.

The series both invented and restored some original titles. After Harry (alas, he was no feisty Harry, at Harfleur or Helmond) comes The Houses of York and Lancaster, very much what it says: cue one famously weary sequence where York regales us, with Salisbury and Warwick, with the basis of his claim to the throne: ‘Edward the Third, my lords, had seven sons: The first, Edward the Black Prince, Prince of Wales; The second, William of Hatfield, and the third, Lionel Duke of Clarence…’ Thence John of Gaunt…Edmund of York…Thomas of Gloucester…William of Windsor…’, etc.. York carefully emphasising the legitimacy of Richard II and the illegality of the Lancastrian succession.

Simon Harrison, the superbly convincing, courageous - and already ominous - Richard, Duke  of Gloucester

York’s foursome of sons consist of  – crucial to the unfolding saga - the future King Edward IV (Patrick Myles: his Duke of Anjou, possibly through no fault of his, is also unthrilling; as Edward he is solid but uncharismatic, but Shakespeare gives him some of the rottener lines: ‘Helen of Greece was fairer far than thou, Although thy husband may be Menelaus; And ne'er was Agamemnon's brother wrong'd By that false woman, as this king by thee); and the eldest of his three young brothers, George of Clarence (Gareth Peirce, even less involving: one rather hoped he’d end up in a Malmsey butt sooner than planned). Yet interestingly - here comes the history again, and probably the source of his ultimate end – Clarence turns malcontent and to Richard’s mortification – it is the articulate young Crookback who is sent to win him round again - briefly joins the enemy Lancastrians.

Peirce is more delightful in a classic Shakespearian divertissement – a kind of Dogberry meets Olivier’s Justice Shallow - as Smith the Weaver, who is humouring Cade along with Dick the Butcher (the rather good Nigel Hastings – also Exeter and Oxford, an actor I’d like to have seen and heard more of, but he was later reduced to mostly banging drums).

There is also the teenage Edmund, who gets bumped off with his father at Wakefield (the latter is here captured and murdered by Margaret’s retinue), each sealing Henry’s fate: disciplined young actor Joe Jameson triumphed in all his youthful roles, which included being terminated yet again, at Tewkesbury, as Henry’s and Margaret’s potentially brilliant and warlike heir, Prince Edward; plus an earlier incarnation as Young Talbot, also scythed down alongside his father (Andrew Sheridan, quietly impacting on the trilogy throughout, initially highly successful in the role of soldier Talbot and later one of the steadying hands as an involving, congenial - if not quite Machiavellian enough - Warwick the Kingmaker).

The last but one Yorkist is the Duke’s namesake, successor as Duke of Gloucester and second youngest son, Richard, soon to inherit the title formerly held by his father and before that, the even greater Duke Humphrey of Gloucester. Humphrey one of Henry V’s frighteningly powerful surviving brothers (his other brother Bedford occupies himself with, and dies, in France) is played by the, in real life, heavily-greybeard, sage-looking Garry Cooper, a kind of visual Nostradamus figure, or a severe escapee from some Durer portrait.

Yet as co-regent Humphrey of Gloucester was arguably one of the better administrators this country has had, who started to wrench England – despite the massive loss of income with the loss of the French territories, something Henry VII strove to rectify and Henry VIII amended at a stroke - from the Middle Ages into the great middle class era of European banking (notably the de Medicis) echoed by the reign of Edward IV. To no avail, in a climactic passage in the trilogy Humphrey is done in by insistent rivalry within the Lancastrian faction (his own uncle Beaufort connives and then succumbs himself to conscience): his disgrace and – untried for treason - possibly natural death (this powerful sequence punchily closes the first half of Part II; it is argued in the text he was killed) provides the clearest evidence yet of the reconciling but flailing Henry’s sheer ineptitude under pressure from conflicting parties.

Ultimate successor to the title, Richard of Gloucester, rather brilliantly carrying off both hunched back and limp - the former un-Larry-like, in that he seems to be unpadded, rendering his consistency of gangling gait all the more of a miracle - is played with a terrific blend of aplomb and restraint by Simon Harrison, who looked and sounded a bit of a phut in Part I as Joan’s ambitious Dauphin (Charles VII), but as Richard does much to make the second two parts enjoyable.

Richard Plantagenet, future Duke of York (Brendan O'Hea) battles Joan of Arc (Beatriz Romilly)

No doubt he is a killer, but it is notable that Shakespeare makes Henry insult Richard beyond bearing before he finally turns, for the first time, regicide. (It is also notable that Shakespeare has Richard, born in October 1452, appear to take part in the battles of the late 1450s up to 1461, a time when he was aged between 5 and 8! His real involvement, and first display of considerable military prowess, was in 1469-71, aged 17-19). 

There are two chilling moments of sinister vision featuring Richard: once, when Harrison manoeuvres himself painfully and with no one looking sits on the empty throne: obvious, ominous, but very effective. And even better, when with brother Edward IV and his wife looking on, he follows the now restored Clarence to kiss (as bidden) the newborn Edward V, and then hangs on to him, and settles down on the vast wooden throne steps for what looks like a family photo, swaddling and cradling his (as Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More would have it) future victim.   

So focused and successful are these briefest of images, they suggest perhaps that Director Nick Bagnall, so hugely successful in pulling off an impressively compact (hence focused) production, might have been more clever and inventive and pithy elsewhere. Bangs and crashes and gladiatorial dexterity are not enough (the fights - Kate Waters; Wendy Allnutt did the movement) were often very good, stylised and slow motion but to advantage, though all a bit centre stage; in fact I don’t remember a single moment where we were reminded that Malvern has a front stage too). The words – apart from a sloppy opening to Harry the Sixth - are almost always well spoken; some (Harrison’s Dauphin again, or Sheridan’s Talbot) might have been milked by the director to more advantage; not least, to improve, pinpoint and enliven Part I’s more pedestrian scenes set in France.

Levels (top, and rarely a kind of neutral middle) are utilised on Designer Ti Green’s scaffolded set sometimes for no obvious reason other than in an attempt at some kind of variety. Intermittently they do add something, as when Henry scampers up like a small boy climbing trees, Joan proves her agility and dominance, or some milord appear aloft like the Norman burghers challenging England in Henry V.

Colours, too – red, blue, amber - are used to often stunning effect, not just in suggesting the Lancaster-York-France-uncertain shifts in the throne’s fortunes, but in picking out Queen Margaret (arresting red), Henry (a very particular kind of azure blue), the Warwick-like wavering Duke of Burgundy (Nigel Hastings, rather good),  Beatriz Romilly’s Joan (browns), and Warwick himself (a rather regal marine green).

Romilly’s other significant roles, a few bits of soldiery aside, are as the doomed Duke Humphrey’s wife Eleanor, quite significant at the start of Part II, and as the future Queen Elizabeth, a role given vast political weight and moral power (if not excitement), almost balancing the now defeated Margaret, by The History Boys’ Samuel Barnett in Mark Rylance’s all-male Richard III. (The punchiest Midland Margaret I ever saw, by miles, was Patricia Routledge berating Anthony Sher’s Richard with a flood of genealogy at the RSC). Why so much about York in a trilogy about Lancaster? Part III is entitled The True Tragedy of  the Duke of York, which is - roughly - what it was originally called when it was the first of the Henry VI plays to be written (II came next, and curiously Part I last. I, at least on this showing, is easily the least absorbing of the three, even with the Joan of Arc saga (Beatriz Romilly proves affecting even with a northern accent that makes her sound as of she was brought up with Dick Crookback at Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales. Regrettably for Part I, which needs a dramatic breakthrough, we never see Joan burnt, or the red-yellow sizzle of her flames: she just gets marched off).Richard, Duke of York, here (nominated Viceroy of France) the unkindest of Joan’s persecutors, and not much better disposed to Margaret (‘She-wolf of France, but worse than wolves of France, Whose tongue more poisons than the adder's tooth! How ill-beseeming is it in thy sex To triumph, like an Amazonian trull’ is one of his pithier utterances), who before his and even in between rebellions in the 1450s, proved one of the ablest administrators and commanders of the long reign of Henry VI, and indeed was appointed Lord Protector in 1453-4 even after a rebellion the year before in which he sought – later successfully - to have himself and his sons recognised as the (then) childless Henry’s heirs, is key to the whole triology.

Prayers won't solve it: Graham Butler creates a reflective and innocent King Henry VI throughout this bracing trilogy 

And he furnishes us with the best actor on this tour, Brendan O’Hea. The quality of his performance (immediately after York’s death at Wakefield O’Hea reappears as a hilarious gay Louis XI of France, touching up and smooching Andrew Sheridan’s bewildered non-poofter ambassador Warwick - who was for half the play O’Hea’s brother in law - beams through; this famous, and here very, very funny sequence alone makes this Henry trilogy worth persevering with (O’Hea has already had many in stitches with his Welsh Fluellen opposite Jamie Parker’s king in the Globe’s Henry V). Everything about his performance as York brings it home that the whole trilogy could as easily have been called – perhaps should - Richard, Duke of York, Parts I, II and II as Henry VI.

Richard of York (b. 1411; he was ten years older than Henry) is one of those classic figures, a medieval era legitimate royal descendant who could easily have been king of England for half a century, or - had he played his cards better, or had luck - might have ruled for two decades and legitimised the entire Yorkist claim, instead of dying at 49.

Mike Grady’s rather characterful, mostly well-spoken, lumbering Bishop of Winchester (a Beaufort, i.e. a legitimised but originally bastard descendant of John of Gaunt, and as Cardinal effectively England’s Wolsey-like Chancellor till he, too, is disgraced: cue a famous brief dying scene) is slightly underused, in terms of pertinent direction by Bagnall. But Grady has fun in a couple of small later roles, notably as Alexander Iden, who has the fun of entrapping and beheading Jack Cade.

Others wallowing in the political mix include York’s rival young Salisbury (an aptly headstrong though curiously characterless Nigel Hastings) and dully capable Suffolk (Roger Evans, uneven in Part I, also gives us a delicious Kentish (Blackheath, Dartford) vignette in the vain and vainglorious Jack Cade, whose doomed rebellion ends up worsted by crowd-manipulating aristocrats, like Wat Tyler’s in Richard II); and an even wittier touch when he, restored as Suffolk, stands next to his own severed head (as Cade) - and in a kind of Eric Sykes-scripted or Blackadder touch – with hilarious dramatic irony winks at it.

One of the striking features of the Henry VI plays is the extensive set-piece soliloquies given to several characters. York has a series – not just his genealogical catalogues - in Parts II and III which firmly establish him as a, perhaps the, major player. Somerset gets one, and Beaufort, and Warwick’s near-death monologue is a significant moment both dramatically and historically. When Henry himself begins to grow in presence if not in stature, several of his ampler speeches, alone or in public, have the force of powerful soliloquies.

Which brings us to the crux. Given the titles we are used to (Henry VI, Parts I, II and III), one figure has patently still to be examined. In Part I (Harry the Sixth), the young Henry is a kind of passive observer. The play starts with Henry V’s funeral (he dies in France aged 35), and the continuation of what was to be a Hundred Year’s War, as France flexes its muscles once more.

The version of England’s tussles with Joan is tangibly different from the George Bernard Shaw/Sybil Thorndike version. We do not see the Crucible-like manoeuvrings of lawyers and sneering clergy determined to entrap her into guilt and execute her, though we do see how important Burgundy – England’s fellow claimant to large swathes of the still fledgling France – and the bluff military men are. Crucially, Henry has not a whisper of a say in all of this.

Rather, Graham Butler’s fey Henry – he does look, and feel, young throughout: you could equally think he was a gangly 15 (when he first assumed some reins of power) or 25 or for that matter 50 (by the first deposition, 1460, he is 39: not much older than his prematurely dead father; when Richard (it is implied, without authority; others take the opposite view, and history suggests the whole murder theory was invented by More and others) races to the tower to bump him off (‘to make a bloody supper in the tower’, fear his brothers Edward and Clarence), Henry is not yet 50.    

A Midland lad, still a mere 27, Butler, who was born in Bridgnorth, has picked up seven film credits already and two seasons ago swept all before him at the Wolverhampton Grand as the comparably naïve and impressionable 2nd Lt. Raleigh in Journey’s End, having beaten some 300 rivals to the sought-after role.

Graham Butler as the fast-learning young Raleigh in Journey's End

Butler’s talent is thus well known to Behind the Arras: witness the very informative double feature-interview by Paul Marston and Roger Clarke, to be found HERE. Journey's End REVIEW  

I guess if you wanted - inevitably - to paint Henry as a wimp, a wet (his attempt to reconcile York and Salisbury is pathetic, and fatal to the realm), you’d need seek no further than Graham Butler.

After all, in Sherriff’s masterpiece Raleigh is a drip, a little boy hero-worshipper, an untried filly, till he learns to replace fear with courage.

I loved this reading. The blue robe Henry disports so affectingly throughout,  somewhere between amethyst and (aptly) bleu de France, is utterly beautiful.

Though nearly six foot, Butler is pretty comely and boyish himself, with eyes to match the attire: when he sits reading on the throne (almost half of Part I); or at Eltham Palace curls himself up like a contented cat; occasionally prays (though not often); suddenly whizzes out to front stage (almost uniquely, he is allowed by Bagnall to make use of that area, though restricted and apronless), or races round the central rear pillar or housing, causing havoc among the quick-change dressing rooms where soldiers are kitting out and drummers thrumming; or impetuously hurtles up ladders and scaffolding to appear – almost comically - dominant aloft, Butler’s Henry held me all the time.

His tantrums are gorgeous. Yet there are times, when he reminds me of Lear, conversing with Edgar or sitting down with the blinded Gloucester, pathetic outcasts in a brutal world with no place for them.

Henry makes two or three attempts in the course of three two hour plays to assert himself meaningfully; or to let it be seen that he, not his armour-bearing French wife, is king. One of the sharpest is ‘Thou factious Duke of York, descend my throne,
and kneel for grace and mercy at my feet; I am thy sovereign’. Among the

more telling, and akin, is: ‘Why, Warwick, hath thy knee forgot to bow? Old Salisbury, shame to thy silver hair, O, where is faith? O, where is loyalty? Wilt thou go dig a grave to find out war, And shame thine honourable age with blood? Why art thou old, and want'st experience? For shame! in duty bend thy knee to me.’

It’s a regal outburst; one that offers evidence tat Henry VI is by no means a triptych devoid of decent, satisfying, insightful Shakespearian verse. But it means little more than a futile, ultimately vain claim ‘but I’m the king!’ It’s sad that this king has no more impact upon his peers than the pouting Richard II did.

With Butler’s tender Henry, a little goes a long way. Amid the bursts of enthusiasm and flurries of unexpected life, a smirk, a frown, a finger wiggle, a hand at full stretch,  a twitch of the neck, can suggest so much pain, or hurt, momentary optimism or gasping disappointment. If Bagnall had worked with any actor, I felt he had with Butler, who graduated from the Guildhall only four years ago. Together they had an idea for this Henry, an agreed persona, and it all hung together.

Partway between saint and lunatic, this is a king who spends most of his life in the playpen. Warner, D. aside, I doubt if anyone could have depicted this more movingly or better than young Butler, G. of the Lower Fifth.

Roderic Dunnett

Henry VI Parts I, II and III is at Shakespeare’s Globe from 21-25 Aug and 3-8 Sept, Barnet on 24 Aug, then Belfast Grand Opera House (28-31 Aug), Oxford Playhouse (10-14 Sept), Cambridge Arts Theatre (17-21 Sept) and Bath Theatre Royal (24-28 Sept). www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on/globe-theatre-on-tour    


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