Sign outside the Theatre Royal in York. The only venue in the North…except for the battlefields themselves!
Towton battlefield was warm and buzzy when my friend and I arrived at 12:33pm on Sunday, carrying backpacks of food and drink. We were a few minutes late for Henry VI, Part One (“Harry the Sixth”), as we’d misapprehended the availability of cabs at Church Fenton station (ie, there weren’t any). But the stewards were helpful and smiley, with absolutely no hint of late-how-dare-you; the first sign that it was going to be an lovely day.
We received red wristbands (like a festival!) crested the hill and found the battlefield set up with the Globe’s travelling stage of two iron towers.
We’d only missed the first part of Henry V’s funeral – we walked in at Cardinal Beaufort’s panto villain-y ‘Long will I not be Jack out of office…’ We set down our bags and settled in with chilled gin and tonic from our ‘cooler’ bag.
The French battle against the English was played fairly straight – in fact this was the least camp group of Frenchmen I’ve ever seen in a Shakespeare play! This was remedied, and then some, later in the day. English soldiers used Henry V’s coffin – which had a St George’s Cross made of red and white roses on it – to slowly drive the French across the stage.
As usual, the energy picked up magnificently with Joan la Pucelle, whom Beatriz Romilly played with a strong Northern accent. In a cast of 14, Romilly was playing Every Other Woman Who Isn’t Margaret (with the exception of Lady Bona, but I’ll get to that in Part Three). This Joan was a bit like a female Inigo Montoya from Yorkshire instead of Spain; she had fantastic knee boots and was cheerful, bolshy and confident. Man, Joan is the best. This Joan did not have a particular intimate relationship with the Dauphin, either; at the fun “I’ll divide my crown with her” scene and the one where Joan and Charles are (usually) busted in his room at night, they were on opposite sides of the stage and hardly looked at each other, while the lines revealing that Joan hasn’t been in her room are cut. She was just an angry Frenchwoman with a sword, which, you know, rock on.
Henry VI (Graham Butler) was onstage for the first half of the play, anxiously reading a book on his throne and cringing at the louder battle noises. I loved this: it’s so easy to forget about him when he’s offstage and all the lords are shouting at each other, but it was incredibly effective to have the king reading in the background while Gloucester, York and Somerset bickered downstage. When Henry finally stepped downstage to speak, drums played quietly and insistently over his lines, implying his anxiety and underlying mental illness.
During the interval I stuck on my Lancaster rose (of course I brought one with me!):
The stewards had said “There’s a bar and a barbecue!” and while we were set for drinks (gin, tonic, lemonade and a box of Sainsbury’s house red – what more do you need) I was very tempted by the £5 wild boar and chorizo burger. The barbecue tent was hung with the arms of English nobility:
And I was right, the burger was very good.
The second half began with Henry VI being crowned in Paris, and once Henry got going, Graham Butler very quickly became my favourite member of the company. He’s the most puppyish Henry I’ve ever seen, which is just right: he flapped his hands when he got agitated, jumped up and down at Talbot (Andrew Sheridan)’s entrance, eagerly tried to buckle Talbot’s sword on him (and totally cocked it up) – he was earnest and energetic, which was a lot more fun (and more tragic) than the traditional “daffy saint” portrayal.
Joan sat cross-legged on top of one of the towers watching Henry’s coronation. The actors not in scenes often stood around the stage watching from the sidelines, which was sometimes confusing (particularly in the Chaps With Places Names Standing Around Yelling At Each Other scenes, of which there are many) but often worked, like here. Later, when the Talbots died, Joan and Henry both sat above them and watched – Joan confident and relaxed, Henry anxious and twitching. Talbot suffered quite a bit from text cuts, so his rivalry with Joan was lost, and Henry took his place as her main antagonist through visual cues.
There were no ‘demons’ cast, so Joan was chanting to the empty air when York captured her. I loved Romilly’s delivery of “I’ll lop a member off and give it you,” which was in the same tone of voice as “OK, fine, I’ll take out the trash.” She claimed to be pregnant but her naming many different potential fathers was cut; another way this Joan was de-sexualised.
Unfortunately the Margaret/Suffolk wooing scene didn’t work for me – although Mary Doherty’s Margaret was excellent in Parts Two and Three, I think they decided to play up her youth in this scene by making her act passive and put-upon. After their sparky first flirtation, Suffolk (Roger Evans) handed her perfunctorily to René (Patrick Myles), who pushed her off to the side of the stage, where she watched with her head down while the men negotiated. René was cheerfully opportunistic, which was very funny, but Margaret is a very active presence in that scene, and it was weird and disappointing to see her sidelined like that.
Overall I liked Harry the Sixth, but I wished there had been a bit more energy. I suspect the actors were probably pacing themselves for the all-dayer, which is totally understandable, but it’s such a mad manic play that I wanted a bit more verve. Beatriz Romilly and Graham Butler were definitely the standouts of a strong ensemble, and the ones I was most looking forward to watching through the rest of the day.
Henry VI parts One, Two and Three were performed by Shakespeare’s Globe on Towton Battlefield on July 14, 2013. There are three future battlefield performances: Tewkesbury (August 4), St Albans (August 11) and Barnet (August 24), and the production moves to Shakespeare’s Globe in London from July 23-September 8. Tickets are £5-£32 (at the Globe) or £45 (all-day ticket to battlefield performances, including all three plays).