Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, said George Santayana; apposite lesson for the participants in Michael Boyd’s magnificent take on Shakespeare’s turbulent Henry VI trilogy.
These plays - telling of internecine strife more bloody than any soap opera but far more compelling - have been worked on by this 34-strong body of actors for more than two years and does it show. This is storytelling at its finest, recounting old tales but just as Shakespeare’s audience would have been reminded of current events, so are we informed of just how strikingly modern so much of the situations are - it seems like the medieval barons are not the only ones who need to be reminded of history.
Although all the actors take on a variety of parts over the course of the eight Histories, what’s striking is how often certain individuals take on characters in similar situations. Thus, Clive Wood, a usurping Duke in Richard II is a would-be usurper here; Richard Cordery, an honest York prepared to give up his law-breaking son in the same play, is here the honest Gloucester, abandoning his wayward wife; Lex Shrapnel, a bloody Hotspur in Henry IV, is here an equally bloody son to Talbot before becoming the son who kills his father in, perhaps, the most poignant scene in the three plays.
And there are little themes running through the great ones: the dying Mortimer, crowned with a paper coronet, which appears again on young Rutland’s brow before being used to humiliate York before his bloody death.
In such a great ensemble, it seems futile to pick out individuals but Jonathan Slinger’s psychotic Richard, Clive Wood’s scheming York and Katy Stephens taking on the role of Margaret shortly after expiring as a sexually knowing Joan of Arc, stand out. Cordery, Patrice Naiambana’s silver-tongued Warwick and John Mackay’s prancing Dauphin and equally balletic Jack Cade are also notable, but in truth, every actor, from the smallest part upwards, would be worthy of mention.
It’s certainly worth seeing the plays together to appreciate how sweep of history is so well told; this trilogy covers 50 years in nine hours and seems like a blink of an eye. When I first saw it at Stratford, I thought it had a spark of greatness in it; it’s now matured like the finest wine and is truly great – one of the historical RSC productions.