Drunk Theatre: “HVI: Play of Thrones” at the Union Theatre

play of thrones ft

The Union Theatre isn’t technically above a pub, though it feels like it might as well be. It is, however, just around the corner from Baltic, a restaurant/bar that does very good cocktails, so good that before heading to the theatre, Louisa and I had four. (Between us. We’re not total animals. Yet.)

Exploring connections between the Game of Thrones series and the historical Wars of the Roses isn’t new. There’s a really excellent site History Behind Game of Thrones and an upcoming book entitled, er, Game of Thrones and History. What Phil Willmott, director and adapter of HVI: Play of Thrones, has correctly picked up on is that there is also a strong literary similarity between the Game of Thrones series and Shakespeare’s trilogy of Henry VI plays, in that they both go, “Oh, the Wars of the Roses? Sounds great, let’s add some pirates, magic, adultery, witches, over-the-top gore, bad jokes, zombies and/or robots and basically just go totally bonkers with it.”

Willmott takes this further and goes totally bonkers with the Henry VI plays themselves, creating a sort of mash-up of a historical mash-up, which was the most fun I’ve had at a Drunk Theatre since the time we got so pissed we lost the National Theatre. Now Shakespeare’s plays obviously messed with history, not just in things like ‘adding magic’, but in combining characters and rejigging timelines, eg creating a sniping rivalry between Eleanor Cobham and Margaret of Anjou, who never met or even lived in the same place at the same time. Because the history he wrote about was fairly familiar to his audience, I imagine the Londoners seeing the Henry VIs for the first time at the Rose in the 1590s probably had the same reaction Louisa and I did to Play of Thrones last week, namely:

  • Rushing to the bar at the interval to split two bottles of wine (ssh) and go “OKAY WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING, ALSO THIS IS AWESOME“.

The other excellent thing Play of Thrones does is exaggerate the most fun parts of the characters and plots in the Henry VI plays, including cobbling together several fun characters to 1. keep the cast manageable and 2. make really fun characters. Snotty lawyer Vernon and plotting priest John Hume are combined into the invented character of Sir William Herbert (Patrick Holt), who skulks around being smug and conniving, and another lord is given Clifford’s story of bereavement and violent revenge.

The character who benefits most from the adapted text is the earl of Suffolk (Gavin Kerr), who cracks me up every time I read the plays but no production until now seems to think is as hilarious as I do. Suffolk is a medium-level lord who has both an enormous capacity for hedonism and a vastly overexpanded opinion of himself. Literally every other English lord in Shakespeare’s history plays goes to France to win battles. In Suffolk’s one single scene in France, he spends the whole time hitting on a hot girl. His response to “I met a total babe abroad, but oh no, I’m married!” is “OK, I’ll manipulate King Henry into falling in love with her and then she’ll become queen and move to England and ummmm I’ll sort out the rest later w/e w/e”. His reaction to being captured by pirates who want to kill him is to say, with no irony whatsoever, “You know mate, I really identify with the god Jove right now”. No production I have seen until now has got across what a cheery opportunistic dudebro he is, which was why I howled when Kerr strode onstage in, like, laced-up calf boots and a shirt way unbuttoned and a coat with a giant fur collar and a pirate sword, and in his second scene stripped off to do shirtless push-ups to impress said hot girl, and in later scenes wandered around Westminster Palace drinking champagne straight from the bottle.

Play of Thrones also cuts Henry VI‘s English military hero John Talbot, and gives Suffolk some of his victories, lines and plots, which is relatively accurate to history, if not to Shakespeare. Historically Suffolk was on campaign in France for more than a decade; in Shakespeare, he spends the first play hanging around with his buddy Somerset in London like a 15th-century Boon and Otter, sniping at Omega House York and Warwick. Also, in the Henry VI trilogy Suffolk, er, dies halfway through, something he notably fails to do in this adaptation, which is fine by me because I’m always up for opportunistic dudebros and the ambitious queens they love.

And oh man you guys what a queen. Shakespeare’s Margaret of Anjou first enters as a prisoner-of-war captured by Suffolk. After a brief (and very silly) flirtatious conversation, she kisses him, and Suffolk sets off to England to persuade the king to marry her and bring her to London. But instead of this meet-cute, Willmott lifts another story from the Henry VIs about a conquering English soldier and a seductive French woman – Talbot and the Countess of Auvergne. In the original, the countess sends a message to Talbot complimenting him and asking him to dinner, but reveals to the audience that she plans to trick and capture him. Talbot figured out the plot and, when the countess moves in to tie him up (oo-er), his men are ready, and break in and stop her. The countess says, “Oh, never mind, well, I like you, let’s have dinner together anyway” and everyone goes cheerily off into the dining hall.

When Suffolk and Margaret (Emma Kelly) act out this story in Play of Thrones instead of the battlefield capture, it totally recasts their relationship: it means Margaret already has a clear interest in Suffolk before they meet, and takes the initiative in arranging to see him. Instead of their love affair starting with a woman being captured and threatened by a man – and possibly only flirting with him as a defensive tactic – it becomes a story about two clever confident people who happen to be on opposing sides trying to one-up each other. It makes it clear why they’re so drawn to each other from the start, and though it does show up how French women in the Henry VI plays are interchangeably deceitful and witchy, giving Margaret the initiative puts her subsequent relationship with Suffolk – which strengthens into a deep, committed love – on firmer ground. (Also, pushups. Actually my favourite bit is how Willmott has Joan also hanging out at Margaret’s castle, which does rather give the impression that the ‘Let’s invite that hot English soldier over for dinner and trick him and tie him up’ plan was cooked up by the girls over a few bottles of rosé d’Anjou.)

Some nice line readings also add shading. Suffolk’s being married when he meets Margaret means their romance can be hard to sell as true love, but Kerr picks up on a line Suffolk says as he’s trying to persuade Henry VI to marry Margaret, and bring her to England – “For what is wedlock forced but a hell, an age of discord and continual strife?” – and uses it to tell us that Suffolk is reflecting on, and regretting, his own bad match, in a context where marriages were usually not for love.

Margaret’s marriage to Henry is also immediately shown to be a huge mismatch in a comic time-lapse that shows Henry praying for hours while Margaret, annoyed, fidgets, fans herself and finally sneaks out to make out with Suffolk (oh, you kids). Henry’s incessant piety is funny, but it also hammers in how frustrating it is for clever, energetic, politically adept, sexually enthusiastic Margaret to be trapped in a marriage with someone who turns away from her lips to kiss her cheek, and whose most passionate speech in the whole trilogy is about how nice it would be to be a shepherd with no responsibilities. (She also complains that Suffolk misled her about Henry’s ‘proportion’, and this is the first production I’ve seen that plays that line as the dick joke it obviously is.)

Paul Adeyefa as Henry has the same problem as a lot of Henry VIs I’ve seen, which is that the character as written is a bit waffly and more interested in praying than a) governing or b) his wife, but directors keep casting super intense hot guys.

Paul Adeyefa as King Henry VI in ‘HVI: Play of Thrones’. Photo (c) Scott Rylander


‘your acting is great but maybe could you brood a little more wimpy, less sexy?’

‘sorry no’

He comes into it in the second half, when Henry stops handwringing about wanting everyone to get along, and starts tearing into people. Henry VI is stereotyped as a ‘weak king’, but the way Shakespeare writes him he’s very committed to pacifism and piety, praying almost aggressively at people, especially as he grows up. The adapted script gives him a strong arc as he matures into self-confidence, and happily doesn’t cut the glorious ‘molehill’ speech where he fantasises about a shepherd’s life. Adeyefa’s last scene with the future Richard III (Michael Keane, super creepy, wielding pliers) was excellent; he knows Richard has come to kill him so he really pulls the stopper out with the rhetoric, and after pointedly praying for the last time looks up to Richard and signals him to strike.

Other things:

  • The mash-up approach sets out its stall in the first ten minutes, when Joan of Arc (Abigail Carter-Simpson) visits Young Talbot (Zak Reay-Barry) in prison (what), starts waving his dead dad’s head around (what? sure), and then they fight (sure), and when she wins he starts declaring his love for her (WHAT), taking over Charles’ lines from the original play. WELL OKAY THEN! These are not the Henry VIs you’re looking for, I don’t think we’re in Stratford any more, etc.
  • The Duchess of York!! York is not only played by a woman (Penelope Day) but the character is fully genderswapped, and wow does it make the story crackle. York’s gloating over Henry unintentionally dropping an army in her lap is electrifying in the mouth of a woman who has been severely underestimated by her male peers, and making York vs Margaret a battle between two women totally transforms the insults they hurl at each other. Also, after York and Somerset (renamed ‘Lancaster’ for narrative clarity; played by Simeon Oakes) spent the whole first half about three inches from each others’ angry faces, we spent the interval trying to figure out whether they would kill each other or make out.
  • The first half ended on the cliffhanger of Henry fainting and Margaret thinking he is dead, and the whackadoodle script editing meant we genuinely had no idea whether they had killed him off or not. How often do you hit the interval at a Shakespeare play having no idea at all what’s going to happen next?
  • I do think the story lost something in cutting Edward, Margaret’s son with Henry, as it meant the Lancastrian side didn’t have obvious stakes in the fight for dynastic legitimacy. (I’m guessing he was cut because of the exaggeration of Margaret’s sexual incompatibility with Henry and her ongoing relationship with Suffolk, since fighting for the future of the House of Lancaster doesn’t make sense if Edward is illegitimate.)
  • Hilary Derrett does excellent work as the Duchess of Gloucester, especially when the duchess meets her husband (Alexander Scrivens) on the street during her public penance. The writing is so strong – it’s one of those scenes where you can just point two good actors at each other and give them room – and it was just a wonderful pleasure to watch and hear her rolling through the text.
  • Loved the battle of Towton being signified by snow blowing over the bodies of an old man and a young man. Shakespeare’s ‘Father who has killed his son’ and ‘Son who has killed his father’ didn’t have lines, but it was still a powerful, cold image of bleak annihilation.
  • I wasn’t quite on board with the scene where the duchess conjures a demon, when Play of Thrones for some reason (budget?) ramped down the bonkersness instead of cranking it up. In the Shakespeare Henry VIs, a witch and a magician really summon a real demon, who appears onstage and delivers a few spooky prophecies. In Play of Thrones, the supernatural stuff is Suffolk and Lancaster doing silly voices and blowing into wine bottles. Now, I’m always up for silly voices and wine bottles, but it seems like a waste of a ridiculous over-the-top magic scene, especially when you’ve been hammering on the Game of Thrones parallels.

Basically what Play of Thrones gets is how much straight-up fun the Henry VI plays can be. Bad productions often turn the histories into Indecipherable Mass Of Blokes With Place Names Shouting At Each Other Theatre, but look, look – it doesn’t have to be that way!

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