I love the Henry VIs, but I didn’t really “get” Part Three until I saw it last weekend, when it blew my fucking socks off.
Photo (c) Marc Brenner
I’ve seen it quite a few times, always at the end of a full Henry VI trilogy run (oh god I am such a nerd), and it’s always felt like the tacked-on older step-brother of the energetic Parts One and Two. It has a lot of lengthy speeches about how awful war is, and meanwhile everyone interesting from the previous two plays dies except Margaret of Anjou and Richard Gloucester. It may be because I’m Team Lancaster rather than Team York, but the play always feels like a bit of a let-down.
The Macedonian National Theatre in Bitola really got it, and helped me get it. The production made several unusual, but totally spot on, choices that illuminated the whole play for me.
When Margaret of Anjou (Gabriela Petrushevska) first appeared onstage I muttered “Oh, no” – she was costumed in a dark purple 19th-century jacket and circle skirt with a giant collar, with skyscraper red stilettos. After Part Two’s somewhat unsuccessful take on her as the rigid, hen-pecking ice queen, I was very worried this would be more of the same, an evil fairytale stepmother. Fortunately, the rest of the conception of her character was wonderful: she spent the first act in a trim navy army uniform, neatly spearheading the attack at Wakefield and tidily dispatching York (Boris Chorevski).
In the second act, Margaret was the strongest part of the evening’s best scene: her and Warwick (Sonja Mihajlova)’s rival petitions to the French King Louis (Kristina Hristova Nikolova) for help. The French court was a jazz piano bar in this production, and the genderswapping of both King Louis and Warwick (more on that later) created a really delightful scene of powerful women doing vodka shots and arguing about politics. Much more of that, please.
Later, when Margaret’s son Edward (Nikolche Projchevski) is murdered as a prisoner of war, she is surprisingly sympathetic – considering that she taunted York with his dead youngest son’s blood before murdering him earlier in the play, it’s a hard sell.
Petar Gorko’s Henry VI was probably the best I’ve ever seen, although the RSC’s Chuk Iwuji is a very close second. Rather than a “weak king” teetering around the stage lamenting the sad state of his country, this Henry was angry. At the battle of Towton – historically, probably the deadliest battle ever fought in Britain – Henry sits and wishes he were a shepherd, spinning himself a pastoral fantasy before being interrupted by two soldiers who have mistakenly killed their own son and father. It’s a beautiful but difficult scene in English, and it was incredibly powerful in this production, which is a major accomplishment.
After this scene his wife Margaret rushed onstage to urge him to flee to Scotland, and Henry briefly, angrily choked her.
Yes, little hapless pacifist Henry was so fucked off about all the warfare and death that was being carried out in his name that he assaulted his wife for a few seconds. It was shocking. It was extremely unpleasant (in a play full of deep unpleasantries). I’ve never seen a Henry that aggressive before, and it totally transformed the rest of his characterisation.
The scene between them that followed was also the only time I’ve got the sense that Margaret and Henry actually cared about each other as people, rather than obligations. Margaret wasn’t trying to save his life just to ensure her son’s succession and her own place – she wanted her husband to survive the war. Henry wasn’t coldly angry, or weak-willed and easily manipulated – he was passionately frustrated that his wife was being forced into these choices. Their goodbye was intense and a little bit sexy, which I’ve almost never seen Henry and Margaret be together.
Sunday’s performance was also the first time I’ve really liked the York boys, Edward (Ognen Drangovski), George (Filip Mirchevski) and Richard (Martin Mirchevski). Richard has great lines and speeches, of course, and Edward is a bit amusing, but this is the first time they’ve clicked for me as a warm, if massively dysfunctional, family. They ruffled each other’s hair and unquestionably had each other’s backs in every battle.
Lady Grey (Valentina Gramosli) was a proto-Anne Boleyn, putting Edward off without totally rejecting him in hope of something more. I particularly enjoyed (“enjoyed”?) her very realistic morning sickness as she and her brother fled from the Lancastrians, and her enthusiastically physical relationship with Edward (York or no York, the guy was hot). Richard Gloucester was a young man just discovering himself, being frustrated by his perceived inadequacies for the first time, rather than revealing his malicious ambition fully-formed. On the Lancastrian side of that generation, Prince Edward was a little thug, clearly raised by Margaret in full-on Volumnia mode.
The Earl of Warwick was brilliantly conceived and really compelling. The character had been genderswapped, which was lovely – I’m a big fan of that sort of thing in classical theatre, especially for historical settings like this one, where noblewomen really did wield large amounts of political and military power. The actor had a powerful, low, rich voice. She wore gloves, a long heavy coat and a headscarf until the Battle of Barnet, where she is defeated; she took off her gloves to fight for the first time, and during the battle her opponents systematically stripped her coverings from her. I appreciated that the dress she wore below her coat was still long and bulky, and easy to move in – Warwick was unquestionably still a warrior, not an object. After dying on the ground, she casually stood up to deliver her last speech, in which she fully appreciates mortality for the first time, in a wry tone.
Another part of the production I was very impressed with was how it differentiated between battles. There are a lot of big-scale fights in Henry VI, Part Three, and in performance they can get a bit samey. This production used stylised, rhythmic dance-fighting, which can go horribly wrong but was very successful here.
For Wakefield, Margaret led a precise Lancastrian formation to demolish the Yorkist troops. For Towton, the dancer-fighters of both sides moved more aggressively, and with more (feigned) difficulty, while a mock Andrews Sisters-style women’s trio sang at the front. For Barnet – my favourite – a row of bare-armed soldiers moved in unison at the front while Warwick raised her arms, slowly danced and sang, as two other soldiers slashed at her and removed her outer armour.
Tewkesbury had an odd introductory bit in which the York brothers waved black balloons around and Margaret was showered in red rose petals while Edward Lancaster ran in place in slow-motion and monologued, which was a bit avant garde, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. It was atmospheric and weird, but so is the play. For the actual battle, Margaret revolved balletically as the Yorkists held hands and encircled her, and popped the balloons. It sounds silly on paper but it was a transporting piece of theatre.
There were so many weird but totally successful choices made in that production that I really hope I get to see more from the company and the director someday. Particularly the rest of the histories HINT HINT.
I saw Globe to Globe’ Henry VI, Part Three at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 13, 2012.