Note: The following review dates from the production's original Stratford run in January 2001.
Shakespeare's three plays about the reign of Henry VI are early works which lack the complexity and subtlety of some of his later histories. But there are riches enough in them to make these RSC productions in the round in a re-designed Swan Theatre well worth a visit.
This second play of the trilogy opens with the marriage of the teenage king to the strong-willed Margaret of Anjou. Queen Margaret's tempestuous affair with the Duke of Suffolk culminates in the duke's particularly bloody murder and decapitation. Meanwhile, the feuding between the leading barons reduces England to near anarchy and, by the end of the play, the Wars of the Roses have begun.
Henry VI is often portrayed merely as a weak king dominated by his wife. David Oyelowo offers us a much more complex figure. Young and terribly vulnerable, he has occasional passionate outbursts which reveal his immaturity, instability and poor political judgement.
In an interesting piece of casting, Fiona Bell - who played Joan of Arc in the first play of the trilogy - now plays England's warrior queen, Margaret of Anjou. But she’s less convincing as Margaret than she was as Joan. It's not so much that she looks too young for the role, more that she appears as a self-willed, 20th-century young woman in a production firmly rooted in a 15th-century setting.
This play has fewer battle scenes than Henry VI Part One but no shortage of spectacularly violent deaths and several severed heads. We also get a touch of low-life with the witch Margery Jourdain and her familiars, and an abortive peasants' revolt led by the charismatic Jack Cade, played by Jake Nightingale, at the head of an anarchic band of Kentish rebels.
There's a large cast of English nobles related to each other in impossibly complicated ways. At times, it's difficult to keep track of who’s who and how they’re related to someone else. But three senior members of the company emerge as the dramatic foundations on which the play's episodic structure rests. Richard Cordery as Humphrey of Gloucester, uncle and Protector to the young king, has passion, choler and sincerity and he makes the duke something more than a mere bully. Clive Wood as Richard of York, the claimant to Henry VI's crown, combines ruthless ambition with a genuine belief in the rightness of his cause. Geoff Francis as the Earl of Warwick, the “Kingmaker”, emerges slowly and inexorably from the background. In a performance made all the more powerful and sinister by under-playing, he reveals himself as the iron in the soul of England.
If all the performances had been of the quality of those three, this would have been an outstanding evening. Still, it's an engrossing one and director Michael Boyd has ensured that, by staging this production in the round, the action is always “in your face”. No member of the audience is more than a few feet from the action and it's impossible not to feel involved.
Whether it's the violence of peasant risings or revolting nobles, Shakespeare hammers home his message of the misery of civil war and the need for strong government, public order and peace. Boyd makes sure that no member of the audience fails to understand the horror of such violence and civil disorder.
Henry VI Part Two continues in repertory at The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 10 February 2001, then plays at the Power Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA 10-18 March, and at the Young Vic, London 29 March to 26 May.