Henry VI Part II

As the stage was festooned with cannon for Part I, so it is sown with grass for Part II: for Part II takes us out of France and into the English countryside. At St. Alban's, Bury St. Edmunds and all over Kent, the rivalry between the weak King and the ambitious York ferments to the point where, at the end of the final scene, civil war is about to begin in earnest.

The grand design of the play has now become clearer; but now Shakespeare illuminates his theme with anecdotal interludes that add shading to the main plot. There is the quarrel between the armourer and his apprentice, the scene of Eleanor consulting spirits, the miracle at St. Alban's where the man who was blind and lame is cured by primitive psychiatry. Each of these scenes adds its token to the main current: the armourer's fight sends Somerset to succeed York in France, the conjuring of spirits helps to discredit Gloucester, and so on.

Meanwhile the characters begin to acquire more individuality. Avuncular Gloucester, whom Graham Crowden plays with great sympathy, has now become irascible with age, though still the "good Duke," even with a wife in disgrace. Peter McEnery's Suffolk flashes across the scene like a shooting star, every sidelong glance proclaiming his arrogance, his handsome figure a fitting target for Margaret's ambition. (His last scene with her fully realises the hopes I formed the previous night; Mr. McEnery has been absent from Shakespeare for too long.) Helen Mirren's Margaret has grown sour and ill-tempered, but is still comparatively young and beautiful.

As for the two principals, they mature apace. Alan Howard's Henry is now occasionally able to make a decision without reference to Gloucester or the Queen, even though it is likely to be a weak decision. Yet he has a way of making his silly clemency seem truly good. York, on the other hand, already sees himself the victor. Emrys James clearly knows him as the father of Crookback, with his satirical humour, his brisk, rather mincing step, his disregard for anyone's feelings but his own.

The neo-Elizabethan production, as I have called it, proves its worth again and again. Scene melts into scene, each one contrived with a masterly simplicity that announces its content at once, so that there is as much continuous action as in a football match. Jack Cade's rebellion is built up beautifully from small beginnings to general uproar; Cade is played with such understanding by James Laurenson that it is hard not to fall in on his side.

The fighting this time is of a more intimate brand - no cannon, only swords, clubs, or extemporary weapons. Often just the principals are involved, since their presence is enough to tell us who the conflict is between without the complication of extra soldiers or peasants. Only victorious York, with his hunchbacked son, Richard and the two Nevilles occupy the stage as the final lights go down for the cliff-hanging finish.

B.A. Young.

Financial Times, 14.7.77

Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI, Part II