Tabletop Shakespeare: Henry VIs and Richard III, Forced Entertainment

I first saw Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works, where they perform 36 of Shakespeare’s plays by moving household items around, on a livestream from Berlin. A lot of the Shakespeare Twitter people were watching and it was an excellent international play-watching experience thing (a bit like the Almeida’s Iliad and Odyssey – I really do love these and again cannot wait for the MA thesis on them). When Forced Ents took it to the Barbican in March, I got tickets to the Thursday night, which was the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III. Each play started about on the hour and took about 50 minutes.

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In the Barbican Pit there were metal frame shelves of the props (actors?) for each play, labelled with sticky tape. You could look for the two pairs of twins for the Comedy of Errors, or the four ladies and four lords in Love’s Labour’s Lost. I was there with friends Steve and Meg, who have been going to Forced Ents stuff long enough that the performer Richard recognised them and came over to say a quick hello before the show, brush with fame!

This is how the playing works: the human performer tells the story while moving the objects around the table. The performers picked their plays by chance, drawing them out of a hat (though I assume the Henry IVs and VIs were each in as one, as the performer is consistent). So the fact that the Henry VI trilogy is performed by a man and Richard III by a woman isn’t intentional, though it still has the effect of underlining how much more Richard III is a play about women and women’s power. The object casting, though, sounds very precise and evolving: “you find yourself in a bargain shop, holding a tin of brussels sprouts and saying: ‘You’ve changed the packaging! That’s the Duke of Milan!'”

Henry VI, Part One: All the objects are on the table from the beginning and it’s fun in the early scenes trying to guess which object will be ‘playing’ which part. The English lords are HP sauce (Gloucester), Heinz ketchup (Winchester), and lemon and berry alcopops (York and Somerset). Suffolk is sweet chilli sauce. Warwick is a great jar of descaler labelled “BIG W”. Henry VI, the earnest child king, is an empty glass bottle. The French lords are luxury goods: Italian coffee (Charles), Rose’s lime marmalade (Reigner), Lyle’s golden syrup (Orleans). Joan of Arc is a translucent pink bottle of Johnson’s body wash, and the Countess of Auvergne is an opaque white bottle of the same brand. Talbot is a hammer. Margaret is malt vinegar. The characterisations are strong but clear and simple: Henry is innocent and optimistic and lovely; York and Somerset hate each other; Humphrey is honest and frustrated; Joan is supernaturally confident and no-nonsense.

Some of the character castings are jokes: in the Temple Garden scene, Richard sets out all the lords, similar sized bottles called a series of sameish names of counties, ending with “Vernon – ” a smaller bottle than the rest ” – a minor character.” Young Talbot is a miniature version of his father. Henry’s characterisation is my favourite, a clean, clear, hopeful empty vessel – both suggesting how blank his sense of self is at the beginning, and possibly recalling Paul’s metaphor that Christians are vessels to be filled with the Holy Spirit? (this may be me reading too much into it) And the objects are moved very evocatively, getting across Henry’s quavering peacemaking and Somerset’s hopping anger and Auvergne’s game about-face.

What I didn’t expect is quite how, um, sexy condiments could be? The sparky back-and-forth when Suffolk and Margaret flirt is mostly lost for time, though the scene does clearly come across as romcom, but there’s this moment when the malt vinegar bottle and the sweet chilli bottle approach each other tentatively, and the curve of the malt vinegar is sort of leaning into the chilli sauce, and they sort of nuzzle, and you can almost hear them breathing low against each other, and honestly it was much sexier than many human-acted versions of that scene I’ve seen, and the only active agent was a guy sat at a table pushing sauce bottles around.

Henry VI, Part Two: Richard (performer not character) starts by setting out the lords in a V, with Henry at the front, and explaining the conflicts: “With the king are Gloucester and Winchester. And they hate each other. And York and Somerset. And they hate each other.” Firstly it’s funny, which is always great in the histories (more on this when I write about the new Hollow Crown, which I saw last night) but the repetition also feels like the way Shakespeare repeats actions and patterns in the histories, the cyclical reiteration of destruction. And some of the repeated phrases are more like epithets, hooks for us to remember characters and their most important characteristics – every time Gloucester exits, we are told he is “in a very bad mood”.

The casting is consistent across the trilogy, include little hints and callbacks as children are mostly clearly related to their parents: Talbot is a hammer and Young Talbot a smaller trowel, Clifford and Young Clifford are big and small bottles of Lea and Perrins sauce (I think? – Young Clifford definitely is Worcestershire sauce, which goes in Bloody Marys).  Edward of Lancaster is a small bottle of sriracha sauce, possibly implying his father is Suffolk (chilli) rather than Henry (empty glass)? (seriously am I reading too much into this) (The English nobility are nearly all sauce bottles, ie objects that will squeeze out their insides until they’re empty and spent. Is this about them wasting themselves on a stupid civil war until they’re useless plastic husks? AM I READING TOO MUCH INTO THIS?)

Although it’s my favourite play of the trilogy unfortunately I miss a few bits as a chesty cough flares up and I convulse for a few minutes, and I really do want to apologise to Richard and everyone else in the Pit that night because it’s not a big room and someone having a choking fit in the front row is very hard to ignore. Jack Cade is a kitchen roll tube (tall), and the people of Kent are loo roll tubes (short) – biodegradable, disposable. The murderers Suffolk hires are glass jars full of tearing tools, like screwdrivers and tweezers, and it was actually properly horrifying seeing them on the table. Deaths are done by setting the bottles on their side, which is tense and exciting as there’s a tiny possibility of them rolling off and shattering, though this never happens.

Henry VI, Part Three: Edward of York, tall and blond, is a half-bottle of white wine; George Clarence a smaller bottle of red (I think cab sauv – definitely not malmsey). Richard Gloucester is soy sauce. Little baby Rutland is a salt shaker, by far the smallest version of all the bottles. Normally I find Rutland’s death unbearably twee – who the hell quotes self-satisfied Latin when they’re being stabbed? – but one of the hardest moments to watch was this little salt shaker wandering around alone, looking for his dad, looking for his brothers, and being surprised by violence. Margaret is placed as present for his death, and capturing him in person: “Well well well, she said, what have we here?” A few moments later she says the same thing to York.

Henry is caught and imprisoned in the Tower, and spends the time having a lovely chat with his jailer. When Richard Gloucester comes to call, the jailer apologises to Henry for having detained him, and Henry says “Oh no, I had quite a nice time actually!” Again it’s quite funny but also quite strong characterisation, of Henry’s great capacity for forgiveness and how he really would rather be a subject than a king.

There’s a wonderful connection set up between Elizabeth Woodville and Margaret of Anjou, which only pays off at the end of Part Three. In both their first scenes, Elizabeth and Margaret stichomythically flirt with a man who ends up proposing to make them queen. Both times, Richard (performer) uses the exact same words to tell the story: “And he says to her, How’d you like to be Queen of England? And she thinks about it. Not for very long. And she says, yes.” Again it’s the cycle of actions and behaviours that’s true in the Shakespeare and translated into the narration.

The end is a killer, the York family all clustered around in a picture framing: “And Richard looks around, and knows that all of them will have to die.”

Steve: “It’s worse than Netflix!”

Richard III: CHANGE OF CASTING! The performer is Claire, who has cast Richard is a black plastic ?plant holder? – possibly made to hold something that grows but is instead hollowed out and polluting. Elizabeth Woodville is a floral mug, who carries her children around as they rush around from the palace to sanctuary, to the Tower and to Richmond. The princes are tiny gluesticks and Elizabeth of York lipstick(? Or nail polish? Sorry – had been drinking). Anne is hand cream.

Margaret has gone from vinegar to whisky. I have no idea whether this was on purpose or, like the performer casting, unintentional but interesting, but there’s something very Margaret about tart vinegar mellowing into gold spirits. It almost feels like the wrong direction, but whisky also feels more mature (and the implication that Margaret is mostly hanging around the castle slugging back the Laphroaig is A+).

The women meet twice to count their dead. The ghosts all appear with the same message: “Victory to Henry, death to Richard.” Claire goes rhythmically and precisely through this invocation with each ghost, walking them forward, to Richmond’s side of the stage then to Richard’s, clustering them around the sleeping black plastic.

Again I know this part was by chance but it was excellent to hear a woman’s voice (and Claire has a fantastic voice) telling the story of Richard’s rise and fall, which the way Shakespeare positions it is sort of the fall of the whole Wars of the Roses mess, after three hours of male-conflict-focused stories told by a man. About who steps back and who steps out from the shadows. There’s a question mark about Richmond in the play which Claire’s performance leaves in (he’s played by a lightbulb – illuminating, but might lacerate you if you’re not careful), but the shift of emphasis to listening to women is the point of her version and it’s aces.

2 thoughts on “Tabletop Shakespeare: Henry VIs and Richard III, Forced Entertainment

  1. thebritishberliner says:

    'Sounds pretty interesting and quite the laugh!

    p.s I didn't hear about the Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works livestream in Berlin. Do you still have the details so that I can find out what's happeneing for the anniversary? Pretty exciting times here.
    I was at the Spring Reception at the British Embassy in Berlin last month, and we took loads of photographs and videos with Shakespeare himself you know…!

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