Henry VI, Part II

Reaching the half-way point of Henry's troublesome reign, one begins to pine for the kind of editorial work that went into the Royal Shakespeare Company's last version of the cycle. It is one thing to theorize about the play's inexorable logic but, in performance, the grand design breaks up into one damned thing after another.

Terry Hands registers how far the kingdom has deteriorated since Part I, by carpeting Farrah's stage with grass and playing most of the action out of doors. Visually a surprising number of scenes translate easily to the open air, and it certainly offers a welcome natural contrast to the stiff formalities of the text. But what it assists is crowd spectacle such as the treason combat and Cade's (James Laurenson) invasion of London attended by yokels brandishing meat cleavers, rather than the court scenes, such as the death of Winchester (John Rhys-Davies), who is obliged to stagger about and writhe in the king's arms, instead of taking to his bed.

Aside from broadening the social range, the setting is not much of a signpost to the events. One is still thrown back on the principals, most of whom come over as interchangeable landed gangsters. Alan Howard's penitentially long-suffering king often succeeds in firing the passive language and twisting platitudes into new expression: without abandoning his saintly character, he achieves one thrilling climax by treating the exile of Suffolk as a demoniac exorcism. But he is not on stage long enough to supply the action with a focal point.

For most of the time, one remains at the mercy of the feuding lords, and from what I remember of The Wars of the Roses, there is more arrogant glamour in Suffolk and more elephantine dignity in Warwick than Peter McEnery and Julian Glover have to offer. Emrys James's York goes from strength to strength, now a full-blown reptilian narcissus, coaxing wry fun out of the recital of his ramshackle pedigree, and passing a white rose to his nostrils as if it had the power of a magic charm.

The production fully emphasizes the destructive female theme through the performances of Yvonne Coulette as the protector's plotting wife, and Helen Mirren's Margaret, delivering her insults with a poisonous schoolgirl smile, and finally cooing over the head of Suffolk like a Plantagenet Salome. There is plenty of heat in the show. Perhaps light will dawn tomorrow.

Irving Wardle

The Times, 14.7.77.


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI, Part II