“The Houses of York and Lancaster” at Towton battlefield

In the earlier scenes of Part Two (‘The Houses of York and Lancaster’), two small issues with the productions became evident – these were consistent throughout the three plays, although they improved a lot in Part Three (‘The True Tragedy of the Duke of York’). I’ll quickly talk about them here before more specifics about Part Two:

Hands-off direction: As I understand it, director Nick Bagnall intentionally stayed a bit hands-off to imitate the rehearsals of Elizabethan theatrical troupes, when actors directed themselves. I’m always up for playing around with conventions like that, but in this production this meant the group scenes were very loose and airy, especially in Parts One and Two. The Chaps With Place Names Standing Around Shouting At Each Other scenes would have been a lot more dynamic with a firmer directorial hand. (That said, this happens to the best – I had the same issue with Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing”. Let this be a lesson to directors: rehearse the crap out of your group scenes!)

People standing around: One of the production conceits was to have actors who weren’t in the scene standing on the edges of the stage watching. This really worked sometimes: Henry VI spent his offstage time reading anxiously on his throne, cringing whenever battles happened; and for Part One, Margaret of Anjou was an omnipresent stage manager handing around swords. However, in the aforementioned Chaps With Place Names scenes – and there are A LOT of those in the Henry VIs – it made it hard to tell who was in scene and who wasn’t.

Audience watching Henry VI

So about Part Two!

Beatriz Romilly was great again as Eleanor, Gloucester’s wife. Gloucester (Garry Cooper) was a bearded sage, a remnant of Henry V’s era; Eleanor was an energetic young woman who’d expected her marriage to the king’s uncle to bring power and projects, and instead found herself pushed indoors, restrained and silenced by her patronising, much older husband. She wasn’t vain and conniving, just an active, clever woman trying to find something to do. When she met Gloucester on the street after her trial and sentencing, she was angry at him: both for not intervening to help her, and for preventing her from participating in his world, which might have kept away the boredom that made her decide witchcraft was a good idea. In response, Gloucester continued to ignore and talk over her, going straight to her guard without acknowledging or touching her. When she said, “I long to see my prison,” she meant it.

I’d been delighted by the double-casting of Suffolk and Jack Cade (both Roger Evans) when it was announced – both characters are amoral, selfish and having a fantastic time until they die. They both even pull a “Do you know who I am?” with their killers. However, Suffolk didn’t wow me – in fact, I thought they’d cut the Suffolk/Margaret affair entirely, until they started kissing in his goodbye scene. There was no set up until then: part of this is probably the text being cut so much, but there were no looks or blocking or anything during the major group scenes (DIRECTORS: REHEARSE THE CRAP OUT OF YOUR GROUP SCENES). I realise I am a bit biased, but more sexy plotting eye contact, people!

Thankfully Cade was lots of fun. The first half of the play ended with Suffolk being attacked and beheaded by a swarming group of men – you could imagine it was pirates but with the text cuts, it was probably supposed to be the Commons. His head (which was a great fake head, by the way!) sat on stage all interval. Then, to begin the second half, Jack Cade (Evans again) swaggered through the crowd to the stage, picked the head up (ie, his own head), tossed it around a little, went “Meh”, dropped it in a bucket and started singing his own name like a football chant.

There were no props for the marathon “Edward the Third, my lord, had seven sons…” speech, which made “What plain proceeding is more plain than this?” even funnier.

At the end, for the battle of St Albans, Team York and Team Lancaster smeared white and red paint on their faces – this was useful as from then on, most of the costumes were black, grey and brown and, you know, brown-haired white men age 25-40 all kind of blend together on a stage. Margaret (Mary Doherty) changed into a full-on ‘soldier’ outfit (trousers, boots, jacket) instead of the ‘modified sexy warrior queen’ you get sometimes; certainly much more effective on the field, but it was interesting in light of York’s going “Women are nice but not you, you’ve totally renounced your woman-ness, you awful inhuman French person” in Part Three.

Other choices I quite liked:

  • Cade carried Gloucester’s staff of office in his second scene, and struck it on ‘London Stone’ (the throne). I’m really looking forward to seeing this part at the Globe in Southwark, where Cade’s uprising really happened.
  • It was implied that Cardinal Winchester (Mike Grady) poisoned himself to end his pain, which was interesting.
  • Alexander Iden self-identified himself like Bill and Ted: “Alexander Iden…esquire…of Kent.”
  • York (Brendan O’Hea) was very strong throughout, especially when he was telling the audience about his Jack Cade plan, when he got all sarcastic and crisp and a little bit too keen.
  • During the argument around Suffolk’s banishment, Warwick pulled Margaret aside to tell her, “Every word you speak in his behalf is slander to your royal dignity.” It didn’t feel like public points-scoring, it was like he was trying to advise her on how to get out of the mess intact.

Part Two ran a little long and there wasn’t as much time until the beginning of Part Three – which was fine as I was really looking forward to it! I did have time to walk around photographing the field a little more, including someone’s really awesome seating set-up:

Chairs set up to watch the play

A great vantage point for watching Part Three. We didn’t have the chairs, but we definitely beat them on wine volume.

Review of ‘Harry the Sixth’ (Part One)

Review of ‘The True Tragedy of Richard, Duke of York’ (Part Three)

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).

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