Stratford looks at England divided

Stratford's opening plays in their current history series sounded a trumpet of warning for England. They have now followed through with a full blazing orchestra of a play - a complex study of a land hideously divided against itself.

The success of Terry Hands's production of Henry VI, Part II is that, in a vast panorama, it keeps the message ever present and ever vivid, while preserving the rich humanity of its principal participants.

Just as a succession of character studies, it enthralls. There is Alan Howard's as the meek, helpless King, then, Graham Crowden as his virtuous uncle Humphrey, and that Duke's sinister wife, who wrongly imagines that she can turn him into a Macbeth.

But the magnificent anti-hero of the piece is Emrys James's superbly spoken, power-crazed York, the rascal who after Humphrey's death sees that he can now himself smash his way to the Crown. At the end of the play he and his terrible sons, all in black, laugh defiance at the milky King and begin the war that will depose him.

Shakespeare interleaves these high doings with the yelling intrusion of Jack Cade's rebels from Kent, who (prompted by York) stick knives into anyone with education or a title and set fire to London Bridge before they are quelled.

Shakespeare, a true conservative, writes viciously of these unpolished hinds with their battle cry about England never being merry "since gentlemen came up."

But he gives James Laurenson a great role as Cade, a bully boy of a Hyde Park orator.

It is a neat touch in Hands's vigorous production but a minor rebel, well taken by Barrie Rutter, squats obediently at York's feet later, to underline the poet's moral for his contemporaries: all rebels are one and a land with two Kings has none.

Only Helen Mirren disappoints as the Queen, for all her beauty and her welcome feminine presence. She might have indicated that she was foreign, for example, and her lament over her lover's head suggested she had just broken a milk jug. But her great opportunites come in the sequel tonight.

John Barber

Daily Telegraph, 14.7.77


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI, Part II