Henry VI Parts I, II and III

I do like a challenge, and Saturday’s ‘Three Plays in a Day’ event at the Globe, in which all three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI were performed, was right up my street. I braved the pit, as usual – being a Groundling is the best way of experiencing the Globe, and at £5 a ticket also the cheapest – and surprisingly I didn’t find the standing as tough as I’d expected. I think I was just really engrossed in the plays.

Unusually for me I bought a programme, and I’m glad I did, because I learned a few things, most importantly, the fact that the plays were not originally designed as a trilogy. Part II was written and performed first, followed shortly by Part III, with Part I not appearing until several years later. Nowadays the plays are often seen together, and while the Globe is following this trend, the productions have been given individual names to make them each stand out: Harry the Sixth, The Houses of York and Lancaster, and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York.

The first play began with King Henry V’s funeral, a solemn moment which saw several characters carry a coffin, laden with red and white roses in the shape of the cross of St George, onto the stage from the pit. Watching this, I was reminded of the production of Henry V which concluded the ‘Globe to Globe’ season last year, and realised that this really was a highly appropriate continuation of that (particularly since the Globe had put on Henry IV Parts I and II the year before). As the play went on, it became clear that the optimism demonstrated in Henry V was on shaky ground. Territories in France were lost, nobles bickered – sowing the seeds of dissent between the houses of Lancaster and York – and the young King Henry stayed in the background out of the way. This part concentrated on the heroic Englishman Talbot and the Frenchwoman Joan of Arc, as they fought for their respective countries. Never having seen any of the Henry VI plays before, I was gripped by this one, full of drama and pathos.

Part II saw the divisions between the houses of York and Lancaster – the white rose and the red – become even more marked. Henry’s character was developed further, and the king was revealed to be kindhearted, pious, but lacking in authority. The Kentish rebellion, led by Jack Cade, demonstrated the unrest felt by ordinary people, and the ambitious Duke of York let slip his plans. In Part III, the divisions between the factions come to a head, and the government is threatened by York and his sons.

Being performed by one cast lent the three productions a sense of continuity, and it was fascinating to see the recurring characters grow and develop. Graham Butler made an excellent Henry VI, starting off as an insecure, timid boy and growing into a deeply religious and compassionate, albeit not the strongest, ruler. Brendan O’Hea made his presence felt as the ambitious Duke of York, and his hilarious turn as the King of France also deserves a mention. Of the two women in the cast, Mary Doherty made a powerful Margaret: her character made the greatest impact during the final play when she took the lead in the fight against the Yorkists, while Beatriz Romilly shone as Joan of Arc in Part I and as the Duchess of Gloucester and Lady Grey in subsequent parts.

Roger Evans played both the Duke of Suffolk and the rebel Jack Cade, the latter particularly brilliant when he got the entire audience to cheer for him. Simon Harrison played the future Richard III in the second and third plays, and it was fascinating to see a younger version of the character who would one day become one of Shakespeare’s most notorious. It was completely believable that he would one day scheme to become king, and Harrison brought a great deal of charisma to the role. All of the actors (apart from Butler as the titular king) played more than one part, and it says a lot for their talent and versatility that they were able to do this so successfully.

As a touring production, the set needed to be simple, but the basic scaffolding and wooden throne worked really well (a few severed head props added to the effect). A coffin was put to multiple uses, but by and large the actors didn’t need many props – they were good enough by themselves.

I had a great day, which was only slightly marred by the torrential downpour that occurred during the third play. In fact, the weather seemed to reflect Henry VI’s fortunes as bright sunshine gave way to clouds, followed by thunderstorms and heavy rain. I can thoroughly recommend this series of productions: you don’t have to see all three in one day, but if you do, it is really rewarding.

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