“The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York” at Towton battlefield

Audience watching Henry VI

The interval between Parts Two and Three was shorter, around 45 minutes, which was great since things really kick off near the end of Part Two. The production cut Warwick’s neat rhyme about St Albans at the end (although I hope they reinstate it at least for the battlefield performance there!) and ended on “After them? Nay, before them if we can!”, a loose-end finish that propelled the action forward and made me very eager to start Part Three RIGHTAWAY.

Part Three (‘The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York’) started with the Yorks storming the throne room, which the actors did by running through the audience and hoisting themselves onto the stage. I can see this will be very effective at the Globe, when the actors will be literally pulling themselves up into dramatic existence to start the play. In the first scene we also discovered that Northumberland had been cross-cast and was played by Beatriz Romilly. I am always in favour of cross-casting in the histories where possible, which I think is an accurate dramatic reflection of how much power noble women had in the 15th century – the female Warwick was one of my favourite things about the Macedonian Henry VI, Part Three last year. I am also, as it turns out, always in favour of Beatriz Romilly doing a Northern accent.

Suffolk’s head was hanging from one of the towers at the beginning, to be joined later in the play by York’s and Clifford’s. After Wakefield (which was one of the best choreographed of the battles), York was brought on hooded, Abu Ghraib style. Edward Lancaster watched the execution and giggled gleefully. I’ve seen the Lancastrian prince played both sadistic and damply incompetent, although the former has been more in style lately (see also: The White Queen); I wonder whether this is the characterisation of Game of Thrones‘ Joffrey, who is kind-of sort-of based on Edward Lancaster, being read back onto the historical figure.

Margaret poured a bucket of sand onto the stage to create a ‘molehill’ for York to sit on. The cross-casting of Northumberland actually became a problem for me here, with the only lord to weep at York’s death being the one played by a woman. I love the idea but I would much rather have seen someone like vengeful psychotic Clifford genderswapped, rather than ‘weeping-ripe’ Northumberland.

When the York boys had a vision of three suns, the sun was actually setting in their eyes and they had to raise their hands to see, which was just wonderful.

Soon came Towton, the battle we’d all been waiting for. I do think Towton is actually the best battlefield of the four to have see the plays on. The plays spend more time on Towton than any of the other battlefields where the plays are being staged (St Albans, Tewkesbury and Barnet), and in the plays it’s the site of the most effective stage pieces, Henry VI‘s molehill speech and the Son Who Has Killed His Father & Father Who Has Killed His Son. I was really looking forward to Graham Butler’s delivery of that speech because he’d been so excellent across the previous plays, and I was right to anticipate it: he was outstanding. Often at that point Henry is bitter and disillusioned, but Butler kept the character’s hopefulness at the front, which was almost more tragic. He sat on York’s ‘molehill’ to deliver it, a parallel that had never connected with me before as powerfully as it did here.

Henry VI Part Three

The son and father worked a little less well for me. The production borrowed the concept from Michael Boyd’s RSC Histories of having only two actors (‘son’ and ‘father’) onstage with Henry, rather than four (live son + dead father, and live father + dead son). The reason the two-actor concept worked for the RSC Histories was that the cycle had used conscious double-casting to establish an ongoing father/son relationship between the two actors, Keith Bartlett and Lex Shrapnel: they also played Northumberland and Hotspur (Richard II/Henry IVs), the Talbots (1 Henry VI), and Stanley and Richmond (3 Henry VI/Richard III). Without that context, however, the Globe’s choice just made the stage look a little empty; it detracted from, rather than underlined, the horror of the battlefield.

But this scene was still my favourite of the day, even if that is a slightly obvious choice. I thought the battlefield performance would be fun, if a little gimmicky, but it was electrifying to watch Graham Butler sitting on Towton battlefield itself, dreaming of being a shepherd, and hear actual sheep baaing softly from the farm over the hill.

The sun started to set beautifully.

Part Three at sunset

The first half wrapped up with a really excellent Simon Harrison as Richard Gloucester-the-not-yet-Richard-III. I think this is the only time I’ve seen a Henry VI, Part Three that wasn’t accompanied by a Richard III, either done by the same company or in a festival including both plays. Harrison played Gloucester in a way I’d never seen before: it was totally supported by the text in Part Three, but would have been impossible to transfer to Richard III. He was anxious, impatient and snapped easily. Richard III has to be a confident emcee of his own play, at least at the beginning, and he has to be having at least a little fun. Harrison’s Gloucester wasn’t having fun at all. He made jokes to deflect attention, but he hated himself for making them and he hated the audience for laughing at them. He entered the audience to kiss a lady’s hand (attn interested audience members: sit in the middle, slightly off to house left), and immediately turned around with a look of bitter exasperation. The Yorks had started the play by hauling themselves up out of the audience into the throne room, and Gloucester ended the first half by descending back into the pit – and turning back to look at the shining, far-off throne.

During the interval my friend and I talked about what a shame it was that the French hadn’t been very camp, and that we hoped the French court would be a little fun, at least. Boy, were we told in the second half. The court of Louis XI (Brendan O’Hea, who also played York) was a camp riot, with a handsome younger member of the ensemble cross-dressed as Lady Bona and Louis flirting outrageously with everyone in grasping range. Of his English visitors, Margaret tolerantly played the game while Warwick was hilariously caught between professionalism and doing whatever he could to win Louis over. Louis lounged on the steps to the throne and pretended to swoon; when Warwick helped him up, he slapped his hands away and cooed, “Naughty Warwique!” (You could absolutely hear the “-que”.) I found this especially funny because Louis XI was famously quite sober and grumpy historically; it also underlined what flighty and uncertain allies the French were.

The rest of Part Three zoomed along very well – group scenes were a lot more energetic and tight than they had been in the first two parts, and I don’t know if that’s because the actors didn’t feel the need to pace themselves any more, or there are fewer Let’s All Stand Around Talking scenes in the play anyway.

When Simon Harrison’s tightly wound Gloucester came to the Tower to kill Henry, he seemed uncertain about whether he would go through with it until Henry started sarcastically needling him. Instead of the Psychopath Murders Wide-Eyed Saint cliche that scene can be, Henry almost bullied Gloucester, detailing how much everyone hates him, including his one living parent. Gloucester darted around the stage, dragging his dagger along the iron bars to create an anxious, unhappy clanging. Henry’s line “God forgive my sins, and pardon thee,” pushed Gloucester over the edge – he was violently angered by the idea of God’s forgiveness. He jumped on Henry, wrestling him to the ground and stabbing him frantically and indiscriminately, in a visceral scene that went on for several minutes. After he stood up and recollected himself, his joke, “What? Will the aspiring blood of Lancaster seep into the ground?” was an awkward cover; he was embarrassed that the audience had seen him lose control like that, and trying to regain control of the stage and scene. Again, I don’t think that characterisation would have worked as a lead-in to Richard III and I was happy to see it explored on stage for the first time.

It was still light outside when the play finished. I still think Parts One and Two need a little tightening up, but Part Three was very strong all the way through and an incredibly powerful play to end the day on. As always, it left me wanting more, but I think that’s a good thing. The day was lovely and, although I thought it would be a bit gimmicky, the battlefield setting really did work. I look forward to seeing the plays at the Globe (I have tickets in September) but I think this will be my favourite memory of them.

Leaving the battlefield

Review of ‘Harry the Sixth’ (Part One)

Review of ‘The Houses of York and Lancaster’ (Part Two)

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).

7 thoughts on ““The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York” at Towton battlefield

  1. C. says:

    Ah, the French as portrayed by the English. To this day I still giggle at Brian Blessed calling the Dauphin the Dolphin derisively in Branagh's Henry V.

    Great little series on these productions, I've so enjoyed them!

    • Kerry says:

      I totally agree. I get where the impulse is coming from, but productions that try to play the French characters in the histories straight are just doomed to failure, in my opinion – they are *supposed* to be comic and camp!

      I also love all Dauphin/Dolphin jokes. You could just picture Shakespeare going “Ha, BURRRRN” every time he put one in.

    • Kerry says:

      Thank you so much for the comment – I'm so jealous you got to see them there (I would have loved to go but had to work!). Did you enjoy the rest of St Albans? It's one of my favourite towns in England.

    • Kerry says:

      Good question! To be honest I can't remember it very much from this production, which probably says more about my memory than anything else! I don't think the relationship between Margaret and Henry was played as particularly strong – which is a shame because there's a lot there, and although it's easy to fall back to 'angry woman shouts at weak husband' I don't think that's what their marriage is about. I'll have to wait and see it again though (I'm seeing it at the Globe in early September).

      What did you think of it?

      • Well Ive never read the plays so Im not sure about the relationship thing. I thought it was great, it really showed how self centered she was.

        How do you think the relationship should have been?

        Since my first comment I saw the production and reviewed it on my blog


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