ENGLAND IN FERMENT, AND SOME DANGEROUS WOMEN
We are in the 1450s, in a dangerous doldrum: Henry V of Agincourt is long dead, his stripling son married to pretty French Margaret of Anjou but still as a lad ruling under the Lord Protector, his uncle Gloucester. Who is, of course, resented by the usual stroppy court of nobles. These are encountered round a gorgeous banqueting table as we join them, beefing about France and one another.
The Bishop of Winchester (a fabulously weathered, sharp-eyed Paola Dionisotti) is clearly up to no good; the new Duke of Suffolk who negotiated the marriage is out for his own ends; Oliver Alvin-Wilson as York is showing promise of starting the future war of the roses, and still more excitingly, the Protector’s wife Eleanor – a diminutive but ferocious Lucy Benjamin in a pearl headdress reminiscent in form of Ena Sharples’ hairnet – is plotting, in the style of a proto-Lady-Macbeth, for her honourably reluctant spouse to seize power.
Shortly she gives it even more of the soap-opera touch in a passing brawl with the young queen, and hires a tame wizard to call up a disembodied – prophetically blood-dripping – head from a sudden trapdoor before being arraigned, raggedly defiant, and finally striding off to doom with her alarmed warder without dropping any of her innate menace. Bravo to Benjamin in this her debut RSC season…
Luckily, this sense of out-of-control female agency (always good in a warlike macho history-play) is picked up with interest by Minnie Gale as the Queen, as sneaky a foreign-born plotter as ever Shakespeare devised, who at a later point smiles treacherously over her petit-point while arguing the case for poor Gloucester handing over his power of protectorate. She eventually snogs the equally treacherous Suffolk (Ben Hall) and spends the rest of the play carrying his nastily removed head around, weeping openly over it to the visible discomfiture of her husband the King (Mark Quartley, an endearing performance of the devout well-meaning young monarch, looking about fifteen).
And don’t accuse me of spoilers: for one thing it’s a very old play, and for another we’re still in the first act: haven’t even got to the fate of Gloucester, the young King swooning with his crown rolling about, a poison death, a ghost, a battle scene with rope descents, barricades and a full-on rebellion of Kentishmen under a loutish Aaron Sidwell. All of it fast-moving, and a good 80% comprehensible even to non-Shakespearian non-historians.
For one of the things the RSC does best – and has done particularly well under Gregory Doran – is the barnstorming-yet-learned Shakespeare history play. Taking on the particularly awkward, and least familiar Henry VI sequence, the barnstorming element in the two plays (this and the Wars of the Roses, which we’ll come to next) is accentuated by having – beyond the professional cast of two dozen, up to 93 members of its “Shakespeare Nation” volunteers and 19 young performers from the Next Generation group. This enables scenes of populace, rebellion and warfare to be satisfyingly uproarious.
So under Owen Horsley’s direction (Doran himself oversees the season) the show clips along nicely on a bare set beneath moody monochrome projections to keep it moving, with suitable sounds from a brass and percussion and a couple of strings overhead. It is slightly hobbled by the author’s original form, which means that the rivetingly personal politics of the male and female courtiers in the first parts are lost for a while in the rebellion scenes.
But there is a particular and unexpected interest (to me, fairly ignorant of the play) in the emphasis on the populace’s hatred of learning and paperwork – “Let’s kill all the lawyers” comes from this play, with the populace’s jeering contempt for Latin, for writing of any kind and for ‘innocent lambs” skins being used as parchment and bees’ wax as seals on oppressive documents. In the most brutal heads-on-sticks sequence, torn pages rain down from the heights. This may be a quiet message to government and Arts Council about the attrition of culture, who knows?
But all in all, given the difficulty of getting the ‘lesser’ history plays right for a modern audience, it’s a triumph. Doran’s trademark in leadership here has always been , apart from deep care of the text, clarity, vigour and storytelling élan. And – as rather suggested above – no pompous reluctance to zhoosh up the soap-opera elements of archaic court doings. I enjoyed it.
Box office. Rsc.org.uk. To 28 may