You need to be strong to be so weak

Henry VI is not a play I’ve seen often, usually skipping from the previous Henry plays to Richard III without passing go.

But the new production at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe was too good a chance to miss, setting Richard III (seen on the same day) in a proper context. In particular, it allowed the sometimes distracting deformities of Richard Crookback to be represented only by the text rather than prosthetics. Richard’s desire to sweep aside all who stand in his path to the throne of England is driven by clarity of evil thought rather than out of revenge for disabilities which never seem to disable his vaunting ambition.

Both plays were set in a time of your own choosing, but the occasional modern musical sting to one murder or another allowed you to see this as contemporary as you might wish. Certainly, Henry, a weak, incompetent leader surrounded by strong, opinionated but divided courtiers, is recognisable from recent history. Is recognisable from virtually any period of history.

The weak King needs to be played with some confidence and assertion to be believed. The tracksuited Jonathan Broadbent is a strong actor for the part and is convincingly unsure about each and every major decision. His French Queen Margaret played by Steffan Donnelly is brutally certain by contrast.

Henry VI combines the second and third part of the traditional three plays – leaving out the French set up with Joan of Arc to concentrate on the English War of the Roses.

The androgenous casting lends further uncertainty to who sides with whom (or for how long), and it only the emerging Richard Duke of York who has a constant sense of direction, at least in his own mind. Sophie Russell is fantastic as Richard – manoeuvring players in the War of Roses is the first play and trampling all before her in the second. It is helpful (and amusing) that many players are swapping red and white football shirts with the names on as allegiances shift between the red and white of Lancaster and York.

By the time Clarence is murdered in the Tower by people wearing T-Shirts proclaiming ‘Murderer 1’ and ‘Murderer 2’ the tone is already well established for a crossover between humour and terror.

Both plays bring on stage much of the mayhem and murder which is merely hinted at in the wings of other productions. John Lightbody, who is himself murdered several times as different characters in Henry VI, stalks the stage in Richard III as Lord High Executioner Richard Ratcliffe; and is given a few more people to despatch than in the original script.

All in all, theses are two plays which concentrate on the important and leave out the unnecessary (the final battle scene in Richard III is probably the shortest ever). They are productions of pace and vigour and great credit must go to the co-directors Ilinca Radulian and Sean Holmes.

This is Shakespeare meets Tarantino. It’s a must see.

Henry VI and Richard III
★★★★
The Sam Wanamaker Theatre, London until 26 January 2020