This was silly, playful and sometimes eerie, which is exactly right for the Henry VIs.
The plays in Globe to Globe were theoretically kept to a two-hour time limit, although Part Two stretched this to 2.5 hours and Part Three to nearly three hours (although I happily would have sat through that one for a full day, frankly).
The main set was a large circular table that was actually three concentric circles, quartered. In the Temple Garden scene, it was pulled apart to become a Tudor rose, but in the first scene it was solid. Actors clambered up and flopped on it, dead, covering themselves in jackets in a haphazard way. This is one of the few productions I’ve seen so far where the groundlings seemed as if they were missing out, as a large proportion of the action took place on top of the table. The opening of the play is Henry V’s funeral, and as the funeral began the actors lifted themselves up piece by piece and dressed very slowly and disjointedly. It reminded me (I think intentionally) of the pacifist soldier Williams’ line in Henry V:
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place’.
The bodily reconstruction of England took a while, and was very atmospheric, which wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t know they’d had to cut many of the good bits to make room for it.
I really liked the French court – specifically, Charles and Joan (Jelena Dulvezan). Alencon, Rene and Orleans weren’t cast characters; instead the entire company sat in a circle around the stage rapping rhythmically on their metal chairs and shouting conflicting, overlapping advice to Charles. It was a great communication of the hereditary madness in that branch of the French royal family (Charles’ father famously thought he was made of glass).
Joan appeared below the table, raising a hand to beckon Charles, then pulled him under: she led him around the stage, quieting the rapping and chanting voices one by one.
Joan wasn’t witchy or conniving at all, which you can do in translation when she isn’t running around conjuring spirits every other line. Instead, she was a sensible person stuck trying to fix an impossible situation. It was an interesting subversion of her characterisation in the play, but I don’t think it would work as a more frequent character choice, as half the fun of the Shakespearean character of Joan is how little she resembles the contemporary idea of Joan of Arc.
Here, Joan’s tragedy was that she was an outstanding communicator, and maybe even healer, but no one around her recognised how to use her skills. After recapturing Orleans, she danced on the table with her French comrades, but it wasn’t sexual, as Joan’s relationship with her generals usually is. When the soldiers had mostly fallen asleep, Charles drunkenly crawled up and chased her around the table trying to kiss her, while Joan exhaustedly put him off until he too passed out. Shakespeare’s Joan la Pucelle is flirtatious, rude and bawdy, but the National Theatre of Serbia’s Joan was just a competent woman trying to work around her lecherous boss to save the country.
Other good bits:
- There were two messengers written into the play for comic relief, and the Mortimer prison scene (aka the first time we hear about York’s lineage) was particularly brilliant. The messengers mimed the whole Plantagenet line while Mortimer rambled on about it – up to and including murder, bumsex and finally spinning something that was either the English crown or a baby on one finger like a basketball.
- The Temple garden scene, where Somerset and York choose the eponymous red and white roses that kick off the Wars, was played inside a giant Tudor rose formed by the table pieces. Rather than prop roses, there was red and white face paint hidden below the central table, which the lords smeared on the faces of themselves and their supporters. I love touches like that: they’re so simple and effective they feel like cheating.
- I was extremely disappointed they cut my favourite scene in the whole histories, where Suffolk and Margaret flirt energetically on a battlefield, but as that scene is mostly a set-up for their relationship in Part Two, which this company wasn’t doing, it makes sense that they got rid of it.
- I was less disappointed that they cut Talbot fairly heavily. He did have two good scenes, and although he’s’ a quite good character, he’s also one that it makes a lot of sense to trim down if you’re going to try to whip through the play in 1hr45min (not including interval).
- There was some comedy business with the ashes of Henry V at the end which was superb.
On the whole I enjoyed it, and although it was the shortest of the trilogy, I’d have liked to see it tightened up a bit so they could fit more in.
I saw Globe to Globe’s Henry VI, Part One at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 13, 2012.