‘Henry VI’ review

Theatre, Shakespeare
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
Henry VI, Shakespeare's Globe, 2019
Photograph: Marc Brenner Sophie Russell (Richard III) and Jonathan Broadbent (Henry VI)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

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The Globe Ensemble’s epic and excellent indoor rep season begins with this intense and exciting take on Shakespeare’s rarely-performed history plays

This is a review of ‘Henry VI’ and ‘Richard III’, which run in rep together. For ‘Richard III’ listings, go here

Much like Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit’, William Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VI’ is a cracking single story that’s been overstretched by being turned into a trilogy.

Hence, it rarely gets done: the simple economics of an obscure three-part-play are enough to scare off most producers. But the Globe is currently ambling its way through Shakespeare’s English history plays, and this smart solo edit directed by Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian is very much ‘Henry VI’ living its best life, paired for a rep season with the much more famous ‘Richard III’, which follows on from it immediately.

Stripped of its longueurs, it serves two essential purposes. One, it’s a breakneck (and naturally somewhat biased) history of England during the chaotic reign of Henry VI, during which the country lapsed into civil war and most of his dad’s prodigious French conquests were lost. And two, it’s a truly almighty prologue to the (let’s be honest) manifestly superior ‘Richard III’. Both directed by Holmes/Radulian, the two plays are performed by a slimmed-down version of the Globe ensemble, which did ‘Henry IV’ and ‘Henry V’ this summer.

Here, ‘Henry VI’ (a three-and-a-quarter-hour edit of original parts two and three) is rendered atmospherically and interestingly: Grace Smart’s set gradually disintegrates across the two intervals; the battle scenes are weird and intense. But it’s also incredibly lucid: for much of the play, the two warring sides wear sports kit denoting their names and allegiances (v helpful). And ultimately Holmes and Radulian are far more focused on articulating the story clearly than they are showing off. There are charismatic performances – the growling Nina Bowers and the hysterically hardworking John Lightbody were my standouts – but no individual tries to be too splashy (well, up until the end). Jonathan Broadbent’s Henry is relatively unimpactful, an ineffectual everybloke rather than the pious weirdo he’s often portrayed as. But I’m not sure it would serve the play if he upstaged everyone else.

Eventually, everyone is upstaged by one man: Richard, Duke of York. Sophie Russell’s take is not the single best I’ve seen. But across the two plays her journey is thrilling. When we first meet her in ‘Henry VI’ she’s a beer-swilling psychopath who commits her own murders: memorably, she offs Suffolk with a chainsaw, and (spoiler, I guess) Henry by biting his throat out. She’s still that guy at the start of ‘Richard III’ – but only briefly. Soon enough she’s clad in a series of ever fancier pristine white outfits, soft-shoe shuffling across the stage and singing ballads... while getting other people to commit horrifying murders for her.

It’s a brilliant study in the fine line between thuggery and politics, the means by which office confers respectability, and the difficulty in removing somebody who absolutely refuses to play by the rules of that office. It’s definitely not a production ‘about’ Trump, or any specific contemporary figure. But as Russell’s Richard cheerily skips, sings and slaughters her way to the top with a child’s lack of conscience, you can see a parallel: everyone can see Richard is a total monster, but nobody has the faintest idea how to respond to it.

A semi-permanent Globe company of actors is a great idea that’s not really worked before because, frankly, they’ve not had good directors. Now they’ve got them. See these plays together, see them separately, but do try and see them, because this is the ensemble finally firing on all cylinders in an epic and exciting six hours of storytelling.

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