Stratford Sends An Elizabethan Message

With the close of the third of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays at Stratford, a great tragic arch is completed, to give those who saw the whole cycle the sort of satisfaction that comes at the close of Wagner's Ring.

Not that the tetralogy ends in solemnity. The Yorkist party (not knowing that Nemesis awaits) attempt a court dance of triumph - and make a botch of it.

It was a brilliant idea to equate treachery and perfidy with hopeless social gaucherie - one of the many felicities of Terry Hands production.

This is the weakest play of the sequence simply because it is over-packed with matter. The Wars of the Roses are in full swing, with the Lancastrians thrice on top, the Yorkists four times, and that must mean a see-saw of blustering barons in angry altercation.

But it has the greatest scenes. Beautiful Helen Mirren, as the Queen, has that famous moment where she smears York's face with a handkerchief red with his son's blood, only to be thrillingly reviled by him as a she-wolf. Clothed in steel, chestnut hair awry, Mirren gives a fine demonstration of a snarling actress hard at work, but she lacks nobility of mien and total identification with her role. Emrys James's York triumphs over her in his defeat because he reaches the tyrant's quintessential agony.

Perhaps the most exciting thing, though, is to watch Shakespeare neglecting chronicle as the future Richard III explodes to life under his hands. A new actor, Anton Lesser, makes a flashing impact as the diabolical hunchback, small, puckish, with the white buried eyes of a creature born to be a plague to men. It is a remarkable debut.

Most remarkable of all, however, is Stratford's success in achieving four masterly openings in a row of a cycle with a message as relevant to Downing Street today as to Elizabethan England; that duplicity and craft have as little to do with good rule as a feeble inactivity.

John Barber

Daily Telegraph, 15.7.77


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI, Part III