Note: The following review dates from this production's original Stratford run in January 2001.
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.