Henry VI Part One

While the house-lights are still up, Henry V's coffin, draped with his colours, and helmeted, is spotlit amid the black drapes. A harsh brass Dead March brings on the six lords in slow file out of the darkness, in rich black hoods and cloaks, black and gold shields at their shoulders. They turn and swing in single file down-stage. Those awkward opening lines are delivered in high style directly to the audience, over drum-beats, as each speaker steps forward in procession, and crosses to form up on the other side. Taunted by Gloucester across the stage, it is Winchester who first throws back his hood, and in his rage to retort pounds the coffin with his hands. The coffin remains centre-stage for the entire scene in near-darkness, lacking occasion to remove it, while the messengers cause the groupings to break and re-form down-stage. The scrambling chaos at the death of Henry V has begun.

The drapes fly out as, using the depth of the stage, to a great deal of music, light, noise and smoke, four enormous cannon are rolled forward, with the young French lords, swaggering before them, parodying the slow down-stage swing of the ancient English lords. The music has a properly hollow bravado for a scene that starts with Mars and ends with Venus, and the conceited French in their jewelled armour are presently beaten forward again in what must be the world's sketchiest skirmish. Joan la Pucelle is the first distinctive figure. Charlotte Cornwell plays her with a big smile and a well-cut mop of red hair, and in an open white calico tunic; hers is the first body not smothered in cloaks, armour, insignia, or all three. She is slim, strong and sexy, soon getting on top of the Dauphin, riding him pelvis to pelvis, leaning amorously over him, and making a strong erotic point of 'Then will I think upon a recompense.' Stuck with four huge cannon, the designer, Farrah, has had to make them do, all anachronistically, for the Tower of London, in a swift and economical scene change.

Twenty minutes in, at the end of the Tower scene, it is clear that Part One is being played for speed and a dark pageantry, the 'colour' including a lot of music for wind-band and percussion (out of sight) and inventive lighting. Guy Woolfenden's music, which punctuates every scenic change and underlines a great deal of emotion, is the aural partner of the lighting. There is great freedom of feeling; fast transitions develop all the time, with efficiency. The many lightly-signalled characters (seventeen named, and half a dozen extras, up to the end of the third scene) establish, even so early, kaleidoscopically-patterned parallels, doublings, placings and repetitions. The language is unexpectedly effective. The verse works with a sort of coded brevity, an easy lightness, which says much more than it appears to do on the page. If the scenes of the Henry VI plays are emblematic, working like a theatrical Faerie Queene, then in fact here they make emblems which move very fast.

David Swift makes Talbot a burly, bald, piggy man, in a big sheepskin jacket, obviously the serving front-line officer who, as an individualist, is going to get up the noses of the staff officers who visit the 'theatre of operations'. (15)

He has a cheerful, brave exuberance, and is a bonny fighter, like a wild Highlander, and much feared by the French: only witchcraft could make his bouts with La Pucelle leave him like a fallen colossus at the tail of a cannon. Across the stage, a sword-bearing Joan, supple and sexy, gives a sense of her uncanny powers and their ambiguous sources: left alone, all Talbot can do is mutter classical references. Later, Joan, in the middle of the euphoria after the victorious capture of Orleans, catches sight of the torch-flame and retreats from it in fascinated, underplayed horror. Critics are sharply divided about this; but Joan as seer is permissible, and the notion is, in fact, backed by the text: the French are at that moment developing one of their favourite themes in the presence of Joan - that they can't wait for her to be dead so that they can make her wonderful memorials (I, vi, 21-7).(16)

I want to deal later with a sequence of scenes from this part of Part One. Two tributes should be made here: one little one to Barrie Rutter, excellent in several parts throughout, for the tiny cameo of the soldier crying 'A Talbot! A Talbot!' at II, i, 77 - a very Shakespearian thing. The second and major one is to Alan Howard for his first entry, in the scene before the interval, which is simply astonishing. He is distinctly fourteen years old, and conveys the innocence of this child king, impotent, in spite of highest intentions, to do anything at all about the catastrophically increasing disintegration pressing all around him. He sits still on the throne while fighting breaks right across his tiny, erect body as Gloucester and Winchester rage and their common people brawl all over the Parliament House. (The Guardian referred to Alan Howard's 'swivel-eyed' Henry VI, who looks on like a Wimbledon spectator watching Nastase play Nastase' (14 July 1977.)

The intervals are taken after III, i. The audience stumblingly explain to each other the intricacies of Yorkist and Lancastrian genealogy and what 'Plantagenet' means, as they gaze over the Avon. It is clear, by now, that this is not, as used to be said, a Talbot play; it is more Talbot v. Joan. Talbot is a rough, tough fighting figure, but he is not the only dramatic hero. Playing the text as it is, intelligently and inventively, produces rapid ensemble work, around certain conflicts. The French and English skirmish together in half-light amid the guns with much knee-work and kicking as well as clashing swords. It is also a play of adventure: Bedford and Burgundy, their backs to the audience, climb long ladders to the bridge, while on the other side, Talbot makes a monkey grab at it from the shoulders of two of his men, to surprise the comic French. These are caught in a gaggle in their nightshirts and compromising circumstances, the whole short scene showing the greatest variety of attitude, dress (or lack of it), lighting and sound.

The French, in particular, work corporately, under Joan. They are modern and ruthless, base and secretive, as the most unchivalric slaughter of Salisbury shows. He is shot by a young sniper with a big gun in the dark down front, and dies in a muddled moment on the bridge. Joan's witchcraft extending to the flow of scenes, the French are made to be active, immediate and everywhere; their feelings are powerful and instant, all qualities we shall meet again in Part Two and Part Three in the York family. So it was intelligent to make the coronation a huddled affair in the barest of light far up-stage, after a brave but flimsy show of scarlet. The English are in a threatening situation, even without Vernon and Basset quarrelling viciously in brilliant red right forward on the thrust.

The complex knot of dramatic forces at the coronation, with the news of Burgundy and the York-Somerset quarrel, makes a firmly Shakespearian scene. The child king punctures Duke Humphrey of Gloucester's wrath with the line 'What! doth my uncle Burgundy revolt?' This Henry, though young, finds his own authority rapidly. From nervously appealing to Gloucester over his shoulder when faced with Talbot, to gently making the thirty-line sermon to the two factions, Alan Howard allowed him to grow in both force and innocence at once. The King is the focus of the scene, and the clash of his worst possible solutions with his highest possible intentions makes the sort of ironic resonant effect we usually associate with later Shakespeare. Henry makes three great mistakes, sending his one devotedly loyal and disinterested follower, Talbot, away: choosing one rose, the red one, and - played here as an afterthought - splitting the command in France. Howard suggests that there might be ironies in Henry here: more, there might be something closer to home, something at the root like sheer humanity, the ordinary capacity to make crashing mistakes and not see. Howard's Henry in his new self-confidence in France suddenly sees himself as a Good King, in the delight of growing up, not because of any unique royal circumstances. Romeo in alien territory, in Capulet's rooms or far Mantua, made great mistakes for similar reasons.

Henry's errors ensure Talbot's death. I found I had mixed feelings about these scenes. The French conveniently fought whenever Talbot stopped speaking, but it did not seem odd in the general effect. The down-front scenes with Sir Thomas Lucy and York and Somerset were excellent (whenever Terry Hands makes use of the new thrust, it is successful). Lucy was emotionally lucid and strong - even though, finding him played by Jeffery Dench, who had also been so competent as Salisbury, as Edmund Mortimer and as Bedford, I expected to see a programme note which listed the principals and then said 'All other parts played by J. Dench.' But Talbot and John died amid clutter of all kinds, vocal, physical, theatrical, and even directorial, being watched by no fewer than nine motionless French. We have tended to see these scenes as the last apogee of chivalry, and Talbot and Joan speak the language of it, in the text. In this performance, anything so abstract as chivalric style had been left behind. Just as Talbot had had no place at court, and was glad to leave, so he was out of place here, with both the older courtly rhetoric and the new French and their guns. This Talbot spoke and fought without style at all, just as an honest old English warrior in non-regulation battle-dress who has been left far behind in the new perfidious world of French villainy and up-to-date English politics. The scenes are famous, and Nashe's contemporary report about the moving effect on 'ten thousand spectators at least, (at several times)' might make us wonder at the possibility that the Elizabethan Talbot went for naturalism of style, too, here.

The tableau of the dead Talbot, an anonymous English soldier, and Sir Thomas Lucy, remain shadowed on stage while the young King Henry, terrified of marriage, stands on the huge bridge and agrees to everything, lost in the devious, reptilian moves to a French peace - even that Machiavel the new Cardinal of Winchester's dazzling crimson outfit did not quite rescue this scene, which was strongly side-lit and confusing behind the struts of the wooden engineering.

Joan, below and alone, coming forward through the battle-ground on to a wide front stage, offers herself to her spirits with strong body movements and a big ugly square mouth. The 'Fiends' suddenly appear among the darkened guns, looking like gas-masked soldiers from the French trenches of the First World War.

Instantly on Joan's obscene down-front exit, grotesquely held by York, far up-stage among the cannon young Margaret, in a lemon and green gown, daintily picks her way forward through the battle-field, and is captured by Peter McEnery's youthful, dark, handsome, careless Suffolk. The wooing scene here rises to greater heights than one would have thought possible: an economical duet using the whole down-stage width which draws together almost all the serious threads of the play and yet is delicious. It is patterned with echoes of Joan, and the Countess, of the hollow French - Reignier, as well as being an ally of the Dauphin, is vulgar - of shallow English victories, and of all the 'practice' around the King. The scene makes another sudden Shakespearian point of focus. Seeing this production I feel it is this, and not the scene with the Countess of Auvergne, which should have had all the recent critical attention. The Petrarchan language is made empty, and, too, that newest stage convention, the soliloquy, is mocked, with enjoyment, by McEnery and Mirren. The scene is a delicate tissue of falseness, yet Helen Mirren plays a humanly desirable Margaret: her sensuous adolescent body offers the third level of eroticism in this production. First Joan, assertive and roughly available; then the Countess, trying to act out the Lady of the Castle, to be won by the Hero. Here in Margaret is slim grace, youth, and knowing, tender, sexual promise.

Her grace makes the more disgusting Joan's final ugliness. She is cursed by and curses her peasant father, whose rich country smells offend the sardonically watching Warwick and York, the latter played by Emrys James holding a white rose to his nose, his face held in profile: Charlotte Cornwell is as slippery as a toad and as tricky as a monkey, even when carried violently out. The disgust extends to the botched peace-making on French soil, where the hateful Winchester has arrived with a suddenness of appearance which marks everything on this territory. And the botching, and suddenness, and disgust apply to the new marriage arrangements imposed by Suffolk on King Henry. Played right down front in the brightest light, the scene makes young Suffolk affect his young sovereign with the sudden availability of sex. Alan Howard's Henry, already, one feels, troubled by sex, giving up his 'father's' advice, and choosing instead to his handsome friend, gives point to his last, and otherwise puzzling, word in this play - 'grief'. He stops his ears to other voices. He will have none but Margaret.

The company is almost all assembled mid-stage, nobody having left since Joan's destruction, the taking of a few paces forward being used to signify the new location for King Henry in England. But the play is not quite finished. Suffolk has achieved not only the certainty of a double adultery, treason, control of the King, control of the realm, and the grotesquely lavish 'tenth' of national taxes, but also a very young, seductive and pliant mistress. Peter McEnery plays his final six-line soliloquy like a restrained tom-cat full of cream, with more than a touch of Richard Crookback addressing his beloved audience.

15. The Times in 1906 noted that Benson played Talbot as 'a rugged dog of war, bent in the shoulders, and all but shuffling in his walk, lean, grim and graceless'.

16. All references are to the Arden editions.

Taken from 'Themes in Drama, 1. Drama and Society' , ed. James Redmond (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Henry VI: Introduction

Part Two

Part Three


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI Part I