This, the third in the trilogy on the reign of Henry VI, is Shakespeare's play about the Wars of the Roses. It packs a tremendous amount of complex narrative into three hours. Kings are deposed and crowned, restored and overthrown. Great barons change sides for personal advantage and the blood continues to flow in ever increasing amounts.
Those in the audience who have already seen the first two parts of the trilogy may wonder just when the RSC's blood-bank will run dry. How much more of the horrors of war and man's inhumanity can people take at such close quarters in director Michael Boyd's intimate theatre-in-the-round version of this gory spectacle?
But it's only when we think "oh no, not another battle, not more death and suffering, when will it ever end?" that Boyd's and Shakespeare's point is made. When we truly can take no more, the last battle at Tewkesbury is shown symbolically by a shower of blood red feathers raining from the flies. It's a profoundly moving and effective moment.
Almost the final image of the play is that of the butchered body of the saintly Henry VI (David Oyelowo) laying in a huge pool of blood. When he’s dragged from the stage, he leaves a crimson river behind him, which the audience is forced to walk through to reach the exit. This may not be subtle, but it is effective.
Fiona Bell is miscast as Henry's warrior wife, Margaret of Anjou. She’s a fine young actress - who would make a wonderful Kate in The Taming of the Shrew - but Queen Margaret requires a contralto and Bell's voice ranges from soprano to screech. Her anger remains mere spite and venom and never plumbs the depths of tragedy, and this lack of gravity upsets the balance of the play.
The partial compensation to this is Geff Francis as Warwick the Kingmaker. He has a quiet authority which covers like a velvet glove the iron fist of his power. While Henry VI is dismissed as weak and foolish for his desire to rule a state according to the Christian principles of loving your enemy and turning the other cheek, Warwick is the practical politician able to give firm leadership.
But the second half of the play is increasingly dominated by an even more extreme exponent of realpolitik - the young Richard of Gloucester, later to become Richard III. Aidan McArdle appears as the visual stereotype of the deformed monster of Tudor myth, but mercifully his performance is a little more subtle. This play contains two superb soliloquies (every bit the equal of "Now is the winter of our discontent" in Richard III) in which his character and ambition are made clear. McArdle uses them as tempting trailers to ensure the audience will flock back to see the final play in the RSC's wonderful "This England" sequence.
Henry VI Part Three continues in repertory at The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 10 February, then plays at the Power Center, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, USA 10-18 March, and at the Young Vic, London 31 March to 26 May.