Steffan Donnelly and Jonathan Broadbent in Henry VI. Photograph: Marc Brenner
Henry VI by William Shakespeare – Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London
The three parts of Henry VI can be both compelling and frustrating, containing the best and worst of Shakespeare often in quick succession. Modern directors have often felt the need to apply heavy edits to render them suitable for audiences, beginning with the RSC’s early 1960s Wars of the Roses cycle which condensed the plays into two – Henry VI and Edward IV. For the Globe’s histories cycle, co-directors Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian has gone one further, giving us everything in a single evening. In fact, he achieves this by dropping Part One in its entirety, probably a wise decision as it is the weakest of the three parts. It is not missed, despite the absence of the rose plucking scene that kicks off the conflict. However, this radical surgery does not entirely succeed in making what remains any more effective or easier to follow.
Holmes and Radulian’s production is gleefully bloodthirsty, but these moments are played more for comic effect than for the sheer horror than washes over the plays. Severed heads bounce around the stage, Queen Margaret staggers around covered in blood, and her son Prince Edward is choked to death with a lollipop. The war begins with a courtroom brawl full of tooled up posh boys, going at one another with baseball bats and snooker cues. Allegiances, constantly shifting, are signalled by football shirts in red or white, labelled ‘Henry 04’ and so on. This is a neat trick, and the design plays entertainingly with a crazy range of colour-coded costumes – Henry VI in rose embroidered hoodie and red trainers, York in a club crooner’s fancy white jacket, and Eleanor of Gloucester dressed like Dolly Parton. However, the compression of events leaves no space beyond the constant changes of side and fortune to place them in any context, or understand their impact beyond the throne room.
The casting, which is fully gender-mixed, is uneven. Sarah Amankwah stands out as both Eleanor and Edward IV, defiant as the former and enthusiastically sleazy as the latter, goaded by brother Richard in to keeping up the boys. John Lightbody, as the elder Gloucester, as Old Clifford and as Clarence lurches through the chaos with a strong physical presence that exudes awkward arrogance. And Steffan Donnelly as Margaret puts in a magnetically unhinged performance as the doom harbinger of a queen, and must be the first man to play one of Shakespeare’s best female roles for centuries. Jonathan Broadbent’s Henry VI, on the other hand, seems underpowered – his helplessness as he is manipulated and ignored comes across as absence, and he seems more inconvenienced than tortured by the disastrous sequence of events.
The Globe’s staging is ambitious, and there is no right answer with these unwieldly plays. However, the adaptation and the style of the production seem to have stripped away much of its mystery – the small moments that remind us in all Shakespeare’s histories that the chaos induced by rulers has its real impact on ordinary people. As a result, it is hard to stay engaged with the personal tragedies of nobles who have only themselves to blame.