In Part One that sequence of scenes which begins in II, ii, uniquely played here in full, calls for special attention. Act II scene ii is a curious, slack, short triple-decker, containing, apparently at random, Salisbury's funeral procession, gossip about 'the Dauphin and his trull', and the mysterious summons to meet the Countess of Auvergne. Terry Hands makes the scene drop steadily in pitch: Talbot stretches full-length on the ground to gossip, and receives the banter of Bedford and Burgundy with easy amusement. In scene iii, the Countess appears before the top-light screen. She is full of high dreams about her role, expressing a witchcraft derived entirely from fantasy, and making a clear point about the power of such folly to shape events which throws light into most corners of the three plays. Talbot scores a victory over bewitchment with warm humour and strong physical presence, teaching the lady a little elementary metaphysics, too. Physical pleasure takes over on the promise of wine and cates; Talbot's words 'nor other satisfaction do I crave' are played for erotic effect, against the lines. The earlier drop in pitch, an unwinding effect, has happened again. Talbot restores to earth the over-reaching fantasy. There are rich patterns of association here. Though the two scenes are little more than sketches, they contain not individual 'character-development', nor great poetic music, but human encounters in a quickly-placed context. The two 'downward' scenes, in parallel, relate not only structurally, together, and to many parts of the three plays, but also emblematically, thematically, psychologically - even physiologically, in a sense: Talbot returns things to a human frame.
There is immediate contrast in the two following scenes, which both end in death, and both wind feelings upwards. The Temple Garden scene, II, iv, is very well done. Two files of young men, echoing the quarrels of the first scene, march briskly in, in mid-point of a dispute, presently breaking off white or red roses from a harshly metallic bush. Itself metallic, controlled and clashing, the scene elevates the love-imagery of the Rose into high fantasy, with the power to 'drink blood', 'send a thousand souls to death and deadly night'. By contrast with the two scenes before, these encounters are inhuman, even anti-human - distances are kept and everyone is rigidly upright. It is all that the previous scenes were - symbolic, emblematic and so on - but this time meaning strife and death: Richard Plantaganet is the initiator of it. The next scene (V) has been so universally cut, or cut up, that it was a surprise to see it. The dying Edward Mortimer tells why he has been, as the Countess wished at first to place Talbot, 'in loathsome sequestration'. He raises in Richard his already high pride. At the moment of death, Richard calls Mortimer's ambition 'mean' - that is, below him: and in the following scene his bustling envy and brutal politicking make the first success in his campaign to revenge his father. He is created Duke of York, on the heels of a brawl which removes power from the child King, demeans Parliament, ensures the ultimate violent deaths of everyone present, and acts out over England the quarrel begun near a rose-bush in the Temple Garden.
The four scenes are framed by the contrasting funeral exits of Salisbury and Mortimer: one recalls this in another play too, at another time, when York suddenly brings Mortimer to life again, in the murderous capering figure of Jack Cade. Such links multiply as one watches, given the chance to see what was written.
A sequence of a quite different kind was allowed to develop in Part Two, across the interval. Helen Mirren's Margaret, though involved with Suffolk, did not make him the centre of her existence; she was therefore more interesting. Her one attempt at political machination, in agreeing to the fall of Duke Humphrey, is controlled for his own ends by Suffolk (see I, iii, 87-100). Her condoning Humphrey's murder is a terrible mistake, as her reaction to the King's swoon shows. This adds new significance to her powerful long speeches in III, ii about her voyage to England. Her lines have been taken as a Lady-Macbeth-like attempt to distract the King from Suffolk. Helen Mirren, completely shut out by Henry's shock as he sits paralysed, makes them come from a longing for the restoration in him of the power of attention as she crouches and moves around Henry. Her famous parting scene with Suffolk is subtly changed in tone, now suggestive of two people whose hearts are not quite in what they do, and who very slightly over-play. Margaret fell for the dashing Suffolk - as what young girl wouldn't? - but he is devious and a schemer. This couple both know how to end an affair, he by hyperbole, she by brave dismissal - 'Go; speak not to me; even now be gone. / O! go not yet...... (III, ii, 351-2). But she is not totally consumed even by having his head in her lap, and when Vaux comes past with news that Winchester is dying, she is alert and interested, and thinks of the King (twice), and has to call her mind back to the courtier at her knees.
She did not know, of course, that ending the affair meant Suffolk's death at the hands of lawless men. Nor did King Henry know at his 'forbear to judge' cry that York's reaching arm would set other lawless men murdering their way from Kent to the palace. When they next meet in IV, iv, Henry and Margaret are both grieving. She holds Suffolk's head to her breast in its cloth: he fears his people's deaths and sends Lord Say, as he suspects, to his assassination. Henry is gentle with Margaret, and she with him. She is saying, in effect, 'bear with me, I'll get over it', in an almost Chekhovian way. The first of two moving moments, raising both of them to higher stature, now occurs.
King. How, madam! Still lamenting Suffolk's death?
I fear me, love, if that I had been dead,
Thou wouldest not have mourn'd so much for me.
(IV, iv, 21-3)
Alan Howard says it gently. Helen Mirren's reply startles him, in her sudden strong truth of feeling as she quietly replies,
Queen. My love; I should not mourn, but die for thee.
We hear no more of Suffolk. Four terrible Cade scenes follow, ending with the collapse of the rebellion. In IV, ix Margaret enters again, silent, but attentive to the King. He dismisses the rebels, and receives at once the news of York's arrival with a large army. He makes quick and accurate decisions, and issues commands, even managing an ironic touch in reference to York (lines 43-4). He sits alone on the only property, Cade's mossy London stone. Margaret comes across and perches there with him. They share their bewilderment and momentary despair in silence. The King rouses himself and says, again quietly, 'Come, wife, let's in, and learn to govern better....' Helen Mirren turns to him, her arm around him for a moment, her face to his. Then they leave in silent, mutual comfort.
Though things have much advanced, this sets the same tone on what went before and what now follows as did the scene of the Countess and Talbot. In human encounter, these two, King and Queen, touch a norm. Against that, York, as he did before, seems mad. As before, the grounding touch is followed by the death of the deluded Mortimer (Cade) and the vicious strident quarrelling of York, white rose against red, with Somerset again the key figure. This time it will end in real fighting.
My third special scene is that of the death of York, early in Part Three. On a totally bare black stage Emrys James staggers in, and spits his soliloquy until a quartet of figures, Margaret, Clifford, Northumberland and Prince Edward, stand coolly around him, at a distance. The sensation throughout the long and painful episode that follows is of bodies coming closer to the ground together, and falling, until the final killing is like a nest of vipers. Margaret's insults to York and his boys are physical, not political: they come from close in. Much of this scene at Seale's 1958 Old Vic production had York trapped in his own castle behind a portcullis: there is great gain now from bare boards and a passion.
For long stretches of this scene Emrys James kneels in feebleness and shock, calling out pity and terror, with Rutland's blood smearing his face and closing one eye, the hastily-torn paper tied with Margaret's black ribbon to make a lopsided crown and he himself silent but collapsing from within like a slowly-dying leviathan. His 'she-wolf of France' speech starts quietly. York's wildness has brought him to this: it is impossible for him to accept it, and he spits his venom on Margaret in the artificial rhetoric of his formally constructed invective. It is his last weapon, and he intends all that he says to hurt.
But his projected foul feeling comes back in to him as he weeps, and his long series of sobs, with his attempts to wipe the napkin clear of Rutland's blood, with his tears, are as disturbing a thing as one can see. When, at line 164, he says 'There, take the crown', he grabs Margaret's reaching hand and pulls her down, so that, horrified, she is caught, her legs apart, half under him as he falls forward. Crouching Clifford leans across from the far side to stab him. Margaret plunges her sword into York's side even while he is almost lying in her lap, and holds the moment after very still. It is her first, and only, killing. Northumberland crouches alongside. The group is tightly connected, on the ground. There is nothing else but space, except that a hooded figure, far off, has watched it all, and will report to Edward and Richard.
A performance of this kind, which allows a very small group of actors working together on a big bare stage to develop suppleness of suggestion, constantly widening the aperture, as it were, of the lens through which we see the events, shows that the pain of this play is not the similarity of events, as Dr Johnson seemed to imply, but the awful possibility of too many differences. Anyone can now do anything to anyone, it seems. The spectator is made to concentrate on a physical landscape with fewer and fewer figures, who go wearily through fewer and fewer possibilities: but the mental landscape is without any boundaries at all, and this enervated world is violent in its fantasies.
Having watched these three plays several times, I am not aware of the 'Tudor myth' at all, nor of any Providential process, come to that. Playing the text as it is, as Hands and his company have done, produces Shakespearian richness everywhere. The plays move in and out of different planes of experience. They flow continually across all kinds of style and event. The trilogy is tragic, but not in the Eastern-bloc political way Jan Kott meant. The tragedy is that at every level humanity is betrayed. The power of the barons, the politics of the committee-room, the ambivalence of love, or the unforseeable mix of the crowd do not relate even to a certain period of history: the centre is not the 'aspiring and relentless' Margaret, as Courthope called her, nor a saintly king, nor even the obsessed Machiavellian, persuasive York and his would-be Tamburlaine, Cade.
What we see is neither the nineteenth-century notion of 'character' nor the twentieth-century insistence on themes. The Shakespearian elements that are familiar to us are all there, but in disconcertingly unfamiliar proportions. Shakespeare appears to have used his material, about equal and warring forces, to work ideas of the conflicts of a group rather than single personalities, conflicts not even so much of the state as of the family; and to move with a swift and splendid pace. What we find in performances like these is a surprising lightness of touch in the writing: the verse, so long condemned, seems to ask to be spoken; the events want to be understood by the instincts rather than the mind.
The centre of the trilogy is a human group, warm or crafty, full of love or pride, eaten by ambition or destruction, swayed by fantasy or insight. This is like the Shakespeare we have always known. His full presence in these plays - so very powerfully original, here at the start of his writing life - has been denied us until now.
I want to record here my warmest thanks to Alan Howard, Helen Mirren and Ian Judge of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and to Richard Proudfoot of King's College London, each of whom gave time generously to talk with me at length about these plays. The opinions I have expressed above are, of course, my own.