Henry VI Part Three

The aircraft-carrier stage, as The Guardian called it (15 July 1977), reverts to blackness, as in the opening of Part One. Black-draped benches and throne are ready for Parliament, a spot illuminating the floor behind.

There is no procession. The front of the thrust is suddenly full of an excited row of black and silver Yorks and Nevilles, brilliantly top-lit with the screen of light; their individual victories at the battle of St Albans fill their mouths. The screen becomes transparent, and the big box of the empty Parliament-house, and the throne, lie before them as they turn. What more natural then but that York should advance and sit on the throne? His followers kneel close round him like figures in some parody of heaven. The lighting makes points itself - as The Guardian also said - varying between sudden bursts of illumination and a feeling of watching rats scurry at the end of a tunnel, with the further remark that many lights make Hands' work.

Alan Howard in a grey gown gives the King on his entry a wry humour at the sight of York's presumption. This Henry will be surprised by nothing, now. York sits squatly on the throne, his sword across his arm like a sceptre, the identical posture and prop of Jack Cade on London stone. A silly, vacant grin masks his face. Howard makes the authority of the scene belong to the King. He will not 'make a shambles of the Parliament-house'. His commands to the seated York, 'I am thy sovereign', gets the lunatic, uncaring retort 'I am thine'. It is checkmate, a reply straight from hell. There is no answer except to join the Yorks in childish argument: Warwick calls from the back of the throne, 'Be Duke of Lancaster: let him be king.' He makes one attempt to use superior reason on his own terms, and fails. He is routed in the general scramble for political advantage. Howard's 'My title's weak' aside was in later performances a steely remark from revealed truth. Henry is isolated because he can see further in to such matters, because he alone is sane. Emrys James's manic crowing whoop od astonishment, on realising that in entail the crown is his, tells a whole history. Henry's father and grandfather would have done otherwise, of course, prepared to blacken themselves for the sake of the throne, be lunatic if that was the game, in this monkey-house Parliament. From now on, Henry is powerless, taken about like a dog or a mascot, deserted in human terms by everyone - except his wife.

Helen Mirren, in a gown of apricot and brown and gold, is no battle-axe. If her eye flails and her voice rings, it is for love of Henry and grief for him, and her son. Conservatives find that this reading of Margaret takes some getting used to - it is certainly emancipated. Helen Mirren will grow even more in power, of course, as time passes: but she is already stronger than some critics have allowed. The point here is that she is forced into military action because she loves Henry, rather than being a fierce political, military - and foreign - female only waiting for her chance to get started. Her entry precisely at the departure of Joan in Part One has led to too easy an equation. The evil at that point was all round her, not only in her: in the selfish advantage of Suffolk, and in that of Winchester more deeply. In England she is hated by the court because she makes manipulating the King more difficult, because of her own manipulation by the traitorous Suffolk, and because power went to her young head. Yet she has been played, since records were made, in Queen Cambyses' vein. Power she must have, of course, when it is needed. But her strong nature must show many sides. It is limiting Shakespeare to make her the Duchess in Alice in Wonderland, only fortissimo. Margaret is much more interesting than that, and it is Helen Mirren's greatness that that is what she shows us. Here, indeed, is one of the great parts in Shakespeare. As a most unhistorical old lady she is again something new in Richard III: but we haven't got there yet.

On the bare stage, the only prop a little book which the serious York is reading, the demonic Richard seduces his father into abandoning his oath to Henry and going for the crown. (York's death I will deal with later.) The symbols, patterns and parallels, though less strong than in Part One and Part Two, are still at work. The head of York on an enormous pole, fully fifteen feet high, stands aside down front outside the gates of the city of York, unobtrusively lit through the next sequence of scenes, a brooding emblem over all that happens. Henry, at first central, refuses to do anything but gaze on York's head, though Margaret is cheerful and Clifford vocal. He recovers to dub Prince Edward knight. Then he is steadily pressed out of the close knot of excited Yorks and Lancastrians which surrounds the anomalous, feminine figure of Margaret in her silver gown. He sits, cross-legged and patient, at the foot of York's pole. He is still there, gently lit like the head high above him, during the fight at Towton, only moving at the start of his celebrated 'molehill' speech, when he comes slightly more to centre-stage, to sit again cross-legged on the bare floor.

This sad scene was exactly the relief from martial clashes and high-stomached words which Shakespeare clearly intended. Alan Howard brought to the soliloquy a muscular strength of thought so that there was no evidence of self-absorption. It is, of course, reprehensible that Henry can bring this mental force to the idea of being a shepherd and not to the business of being a king, and shortly, in the Scottish scene, he is going to stumble, too late, on the Yorkist secret of being a king in mind. Yet for all that, the strong world Howard creates is outside himself: though it is a fiction, it is not self-pitying. The son and the father, themselves speaking strongly over lamenting oboe-music, do speak, as they should, for England. At the end of the scene, the Prince, Margaret and Exeter run on as if from another play altogether. Howard makes Henry impossibly slow to move, even having difficulty in speaking Exeter's name, and rising with the crown in his hand, putting it swiftly on Margaret's head on his last lines, and then, actually ahead of them, calling both ironically, and as from a great mental distance, 'For-ward; a-way!'

The young York boys and Warwick make a meal out of taunting the dead Young Clifford, which they do with animal exhuberance, Richard in particular showing a relaxed inventiveness, lightly lying against the body as if on a day-bed, but with an agile mind well ahead of anyone else. He makes his 'Let me be Duke of Clarence, George of Gloucester' line a sudden cheerful idea for a game. Everything Anton Lesser does as Richard, however, reverberates with something else, particularly hurt. Several times he is thrown across the stage before Part Three ends, playfully or in anger, and each time he lands awkwardly, frowning slightly at sudden pain, whether of body or of pride is not clear.

After the interval, there is a change of key. King Henry, older and quite alone, stops in his reading and walking to step elaborately over the 'brook' and stand on English soil, flashing a gleeful smile. A prisoner, and away in Scotland, his mind can see the political scene abroad with an extraordinary, visionary clarity, exactly imagining Margaret in France, now with a political sense of balance.

Balance is what the court now in London precisely lacks. Edward, like Henry, reneges on his bridal arrangement, on his own initiative this time, while his brothers edge and scheme and joke around him, until Richard is left alone, to prove in his soliloquy that he is a new voice in drama. Anton Lesser's teenage, crop-headed Richard, widely and justly praised, grins like a friendly demon-puppy, a Clockwork York. Hobbling with a great turn of speed and total courage in skirmishes, he is absolutely insane and, equally absolutely, fascinating, as Richard well knows. Critics for several decades have wondered where Richard gets his motivation from for his supposed sudden change in this act III soliloquy. Here there is no problem. He has been warped from the beginning. His brother's twisted court gives him power enough. (The scene opens with him swinging idly on the arm of the empty, tilted throne.) Edward, like his father, takes on the impossible. What if lying with the excessively proper, frosty Lady Grey means marrying her? What if a similar challenge similarly impeccably argued meant, for his father, seizing the throne? What if for Richard it meant killing all his kin? He knows he can smile, and murder while he smiles. He is already far too clever to be caught on the wrong side.

The scene at the French court is refreshing: no 'crazy, miserly Lewis XI of France' here, (24) but a shrewd father-figure and his bony daughter, who with Margaret, Oxford, and later Warwick sit on a row of high-backed blue and black thrones right down front, in front of the top-lighting 'screen'. Margaret is convincing with her reference to 'Henry, sole possessor of my love'. She gets a big delighted laugh on her move across at III, iii, 199, saying, musically, 'Warwick!', like a society hostess, and playing the rest of the little speech of welcome to him with contented irony; she's not entirely convinced, but she is grateful.

The play resumes its English setting. Like a long game of chess, the permutations of position have to be worked out as the board steadily empties of pieces. After the French scene the play suddenly feels quite new again: gone are the crowds, even for the battles. Incessant self-justification is mouthed at the audience from side-changing or dying nobility. Warwick, in Lancastrian red, stands behind King Edward's throne and pushes him sprawling off. The royal coat of arms turns blood red, or deathly pale. Clarence is seduced back to Edward exactly as Joan took Burgundy, except that fewer people are present. The few glimpses of the King show him old and wise as prisoner, wearing a new weariness in understanding. When he is at liberty and King again in act IV, scenes vi and vii, he is a little dotty too, especially in joining together the Lords of Clarence and Warwick, the two turn-coats, like an uncle with naughty children as he makes them joint Protectors. He is suitably able to bless the child Richmond, of course.

The figures revolve in smaller and smaller circles, even the awkward bridge, which appears again for Coventry walls, giving no relief at all. Warwick dies grandly on the bare stage, the nearest to old-fashioned Shakespearian voicing that we have heard. Before Tewkesbury, Helen Mirren gives Margaret's long stirring speeches to her followers, not to an army but to two men and a boy while the spaces of the quite empty stage swim away into dusk. Terry Hands, I'm told, wanted the bleak ending to Part Three to look like the view through the wrong end of a telescope, and he succeeds. The great Battle of Tewkesbury is fought in weary slow-motion by six people. F.P. Wilson pointed out 'how few are the lay figures, and how sharply the chief characters are placed before us, (25) in Part Three. Even the chief characters are few and small in this high vacancy. What a helpful contrast this is to the Victorian performances of history plays with their hundreds of extras.

The last three scenes move forward, fast, into something new yet again. This play has unexpected powers of surprise, accelerating and making oblique its subject-matter. Helen Mirren's demands for death on the killing of Prince Edward, again quite without high baroque style, and all the more powerful for that, are almost dwarfed by the simple business of Richard's exit and his line 'The Tower! The Tower! I'll root them out.' She crouches, crawling like an animal, but pathetic. The wildest animal has left, sideways, down front. He leaves a sense of his absence behind him which is nearly visible. Edward's comment a little later is Absurdist: 'He's sudden, if a thing comes in his head.'

Under the eave of a big trap down front, Henry appears; old, crouched, reading, wearing only a dirty white robe, chained and gyved. Richard slowly pushes up another trap door in the steel grating, to join him, laughing. It is all brightly bottom-lit and side-lit. Alan Howard gives Henry an all-knowing courage and weird simplicity, not playing the saint at all, though he dies in a crucified position, blood streaming from his side. Richard's thirty-two line soliloquy is made squatting beside the body; and as he brightly chatters about himself and develops his plans, his dagger strikes the steel bars between his legs, with a regular, punctuating ringing. He rolls sideways as the trap closes down on the falling Henry - and he is two paces from his infant nephew in the final court scene.

'Sound drums and trumpets!' calls King Edward at the end of the play. The familiar martial bray begins. Everyone reaches for his weapon, and turns to look up at the musicians. The cue is silently corrected to livelier music. In the half-light, the court begins clumsily to try to remember the steps of a dance. Richard watches from behind the throne.

24. Clarke, Shakespeare at the Old Vic.

25.F.P. Wilson, Shakespearian and other studies. (Oxford University Press, 1969), p.17.

Henry VI: Introduction

Part One

Part Two


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI Part III