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RSC's Henry VI: Rebellion / Wars of the Roses at Royal Shakespeare Theatre – review

Two parts of the Henry VI trilogy are now running in rep at the RSC

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Mark Quartley (as Henry VI)
© RSC/Ellie Kurttz

Rebellion: *** / Wars of the Roses: ****

As the RSC closes in on its target of completing the entire Shakespeare canon ahead of the quatercentenary of the First Folio in 2023, it turns its attention to his earliest history plays about one of Britain's weakest kings.

Written near the start of the Bard's career and normally presented as Parts Two and Three of the Henry VI trilogy, this pairing of plays would probably have been performed back to back in their author's time – Part One was knocked out later as a kind of prequel, cashing in on their commercial success. Reshaped and rebilled under the titles of Rebellion and Wars of the Roses, they now provide a natural lead-up to this summer's Richard III, in which Arthur Hughes will play the ‘bunch-backed toad'. If his warm-up in these scene-setters is anything to go by, we're in for a treat.

In all honesty, describing them as ‘scene-setters' is a little unfair to this wordy, exposition-heavy pair of propaganda pieces. They're not the most poetic of Shakespeare's plays, and there's little of the lyricism of his subsequent work, but by way of compensation, there's plenty of action and energy… and no shortage of severed heads, if that's your bag.

Director Owen Horsley makes the most of the guiding hand of consultant director Gregory Doran to keep the storytelling front and centre, and there are some excellent performances that draw clear, well-spoken characters from the potentially confusing mass of dynastic dukes. Lucy Benjamin and Richard Cant are almost prototype Macbeths as the scheming Lady Gloucester and her vacillating husband in Rebellion, while Oliver Alvin-Wilson is a passionate and powerful Duke of York, lining up at the head of the aristocratic opposition to the fey King Henry.

Everyone is rather hamstrung, it must be said, by Stephen Brimson Lewis's strange, cumbersome set design, which has the cast clambering precariously over school hall-type rostra and, later, in a huge sunken pit of ash – which incidentally does nothing for the sightlines. And there are some doom-laden monochromatic projections of both filmed and live action screened on a vast beaded curtain. Looking unhappily like melodramatic B-movie outtakes at times, these add nothing but a gimmicky feel to proceedings.

Things pick up considerably in Wars of the Roses as the feuding factions descend into full-blown civil war between the houses of York and Lancaster. Assuming the mantle of his father, Ashley D Gayle's Edward of York is just as imposing and impressive, while Hughes as his younger brother Richard begins to reveal what will become his regicidal mania with a wonderfully wicked glint in his eye.

At the heart of the story – though not necessarily the action – is Mark Quartley's distant and distracted Henry. There's a hint of his Ariel from 2016's The Tempest about his other-worldly, pacifist king, whose gentle personal qualities were to prove disastrous in a medieval monarch. Offset by Minnie Gale's ferocious, snarling Queen Margaret, he offers a sympathetic lost soul in a world beyond his understanding.

At around three hours each, both parts are at least half an hour too long, with an unnecessary second short interval interrupting the fluidity of the narrative. But aided by Paul Englishby's intelligent score and some fine performances, these are craftsmanlike versions of Shakespeare's interpretation of history, told with vigour and verve.