When he staged the trilogy five years ago, Michael Boyd gained critical acclaim, the only reservations centring on the limitations of the Swan Theatre. Although the new theatre is, in essence, the Swan writ large, it enables Boyd to open up the action to thrilling effect. The whole of the arena is incorporated as actors descend from ladders, ropes, or gantries, use all points of the galleries, or mount to the rafters, alive and 'dead'.
Henry VI Part One opens with the death of Henry V who slowly descends, in sepulchral light, Tom Piper's metal tower at the rear of the stage before coughing up blood and slithering into his grave. But even as courtiers emerge to deliver their obsequies over his unburied corpse, a stream of messengers arrive with reports of mounting losses in the wake of armed uprising in France. Action shuttles between an England increasingly riven by faction and war overseas.
Boyd likens the trilogy to a Tudor soap. The plus side is an epic sweep and a narrative drive. The downside is the sketchy, two-dimensional nature of many of the characters here and an excess of rhetoric, mercifully trimmed.
Ultimately, although the play is action-packed, the sound and fury of the many battle scenes pall and John McKay as the foppish and pusillanimous Dauphin of France and his equally craven sidekicks afford welcome comic relief.
Among those who also shine are Geoffrey Freshwater, as the rapacious Bishop of Winchester, Richard Cordery as Humphrey, the Duke of Gloucester, Keith Bartlett as the "brave and tiresome" Talbot and Katy Stephens as a far from saintly Joan of Arc, who also doubles as Margaret, Henry VI's queen-to-be at the end of the play. Chuk Iwuji, who plays Henry this time around, has little to do here, but moves adeptly from wide-eyed innocence to growing impotent horror.
This is sophomore Shakespeare, but Shakespeare none the less and exhilaratingly staged.
- Pete Wood