As I am not an academic nor expert Shakespeare scholar then this review and the following review of Wars of the Roses (both currently playing at the RSC in Stratford Upon Avon) will, of necessity and even brevity, be from an ordinary theatre going person’s point of view. This appears to be an appropriate angle to review these two plays from because they are about the ordinary common folk during the reign of Henry VI’s personal rule, from 1437 to his deposition in 1461 and exile from1461 to his death in 1471, rising up in rebellion egged on by rabble rouser Jack Cade ( Aaron Sidwell). To populate Henry VI the RSC have utilised both the trained skills of their talented young Next Generation cast and the six equally worthy companies under the banner of Shakespeare Nation. These hail from Nottingham, Blackpool, Canterbury, Bradford, Cornwall and Norwich. In the press showing today it seems highly appropriate for East Midlands Theatre to be seeing the Nottingham group connected to Nottingham Theatre Royal. I have it on good authority that their experience so far has been life changing.
In their two big scenes onstage they blend in perfectly with the professionals and give the play plenty of realistic, grubby and revolting peasants full of individual character, energy and enthusiasm. The Nottingham team are John Merchant, Paul Robinson, Sally Maddison, Julieanne Ford, Yasmin Khan, Gavin Gordon, Becky Valentine, Neil Brocklehurst, Anne Jennings, Kathryn McAuley and Diana Sule. Their partner theatre director is Rebecca Morris with assistance from Gavin Gordon.
The staging of Henry VI: Rebellion utilises several levels and surprise entrances. The visual combination of set design (Stephen Brimson Lewis) and lighting design (Simon Spencer) works especially well with the projected and filmed aspects of the story-telling that give it a depth and a mysterious historic yet timeless feel. Steven Atkinson’s startling sound design literally punctures the piece to great effect. Paul Englishby’s music compositions give Henry VI: Rebellion a real melancholy feel in the first half and then picks up the energy of the second half which is dominated by the cocky and energetic Jack Cade and the powerful York played with great menace and vocal dexterity by Oliver Alvin-Wilson.
The play is set between 1445 and 1455 and it announces the start of the Wars of the Roses. It is believed to be accurate in its portrayal of Henry VI (Mark Quartley) as a weak, pious and malleable monarch who, after his marriage, quickly fell under the sway of his French wife, Queen Margaret (Minnie Gale) and the Earl of Suffolk (Ben Hall). After the murder of Suffolk on a boat sailing for France there ensues much serious political squabbling in Henry’s court and dangerous uprising on the streets of towns and cities across Great Britain. The king becomes temporarily insane and York takes up arms and defeats the Lancastrians at the battle of St Albans. Suspicions, mistrust, betrayals and beheadings are de rigeur in this play that starts so happily and ends with the threat of a civil war.
There are some super fine performances in the principal roles both male and female throughout. The Shakespearian language is surprisingly clear to our contemporary ears and the gutsy, often violent historical story, directed by Owen Horsley, zips along at a cracking pace considering it is nearly three hours long including interval.
The ghost scenes are particularly chilling in their depictions. As a Shakespeare play, that isn’t shown too often, yet brimming over with brio, anarchy and superb acting, Henry VI: Rebellion should be one on your top priority theatre going list.