This is almost unrecognisable Shakespeare. The Propeller Theatre Company, an all-male ensemble and director, Edward Hall, have given us a Shakespeare for the MTV generation, as three long plays are compacted into two short ones. This, the first half of the Rose Rage double bill, is mainly based on Part II of the Henry VI trilogy. Indeed, there are only a few edited highlights of the original Part I (blink and you'll miss them) while Joan of Arc, most of Talbot's speeches, the sub-plot involving Gloucester's wife and various nobles are all removed.
Hall's version (which he also adapted, with Roger Warren) presents a span of history in episodic form and it works. And because there is much concentration on bloody intrigue, war and murder, there is much blood and gore. He emphasises the slaughterhouse that England has become by accompanying each killing by the cutting up of meat while beheadings are represented by cabbages being hacked in two (this effectively illustrates the brutality of the times though it does leave the stage looking like a greengrocers at closing).
All the time, Hall keeps up the relentless pace: episode quickly leads to new episode, as we sweep past years of history. The Jack Cade rebellion is heralded by Tony Bell's Cade, rapping his proclamation, quickly taken up by the rebels: "reformation, no taxation". When Cade agrees to kill all the lawyers, the soldiers drag the audience looking for likely candidates.
As an ensemble performance, the whole cast works really hard but there are some outstanding individual performances worth noting: Bell as both Cade and a leather-clad, sinister Warwick; Jonathan McGuinness's Henry, at first simpering like a mediaeval Stan Laurel and laying the seeds for his own destruction with his vapid and ineffectual posturing; and Robert Hands' Margaret which is a joy, coquettish until her vicious nature is laid bare.
My only complaint with this first installment would be that York's long discussion about his legitimacy for the throne has been excised. Perhaps Hall is making the point that such people as these nobles needed no excuse for their greed for power, but York places great importance on his claim to the throne and something is missing by not including it. That aside, this is a genuinely thrilling, innovative, bold, pacy production that truly enhances the West End.