Henry VI Trilogy Reviews

When Merrie England was merry hell

Aldwych Theatre

Last year when all three parts of Henry VI opened in Stratford on successive days, preceded by Henry V, the reports from the critics read like dispatches from the battlefield. In the first part alone the opposing factions in the English court choose the white and red roses which mark their division, Henry's armies in France are troubled by losses, but Lord Talbot is leading devastating forays against the French. Joan of Arc enters, leads the French to victories, and is burnt. By the end of Part One there is peace with France, and Henry, swayed by the ambitious Earl of Suffolk, is about to marry Margaret of Anjou.

That leaves, for Parts Two and Three, Henry's growth into maturity, Margaret's transformation from strumpet queen into warrior, Richard Plantagenet's struggle for the crown, Jack Cade's peasant rebellion in Kent, and the various battles, betrayals and alliances which place Edward IV on the throne, remove him, return Henry and once again replace him with Edward, meanwhile preparing the way for Richard III's rise.

There is little of Shakespeare's great poetry in the plays. There is immense vitality, comedy and the sort of theatrical poetry of action that is rare outside Shakespeare. It is not hard to discover the reason for the plays' compelling theatricality, and it has much to do with the battle reports of the first critics, including Irving Wardle for The Times. Like the warfare that washes restlessly across the stage between and during speeches, everything that happens is a matter of life and death.

Barbarous cruelties are inflicted by the leaders and rulers of the land, as they are by the illiterate peasants who rise up against them. Heads are chopped off almost at will, making voices of reason dumb and yet making Henry appear as a solitary sane man as he turns from power to God. In these plays, however, the subtleties of conscience are expressed directly in action, with few of the speeches commenting so eloquently on life as the stage representation of war, aspiration, peace and love.

The achievement of Terry Hands's production becomes extraordinarily clear in the marathon presentation of all three parts in a single day. Alan Howard's first appearance as Henry shows him as a boy, eagerly watching his elders for clues of behaviour. His long struggle to break looses from Gloucester, the Lord Protector, is paralleled by visible aging. The young boy stops rising on his toes and lets his voice break. He chooses Margaret as his queen, against the will of the court. He gradually resigns himself to futile wisdom as the struggles for his crown break out around him, and his voice becomes a voice of command only when he no longer seeks to command.

Mr Howard's splendid performance is not alone on the stage. Helen Mirren develops Margaret with the same thorough attention to physical detail, with her growth from flirtatious virgin to general to grieving mother marvellous in its consistency. James Laurenson makes Jack Cade a Charles Manson of a leader, mad and mesmeric, while Emrys James breathes such subtleties into Richard Plantagenet that every twist of his ambition seems inevitable, even necessary.

But without the life of the performances, the staging would command attention. Mr Hands does not shrink from the grisly sport with severed heads, nor does he let the action stop while conversation is spoken. War is always bursting in from the wings, and Farrah's designs accommodate the surging history with great beauty. Rarely have so many elements of theatre, down to the columns of light and the commentary of Guy Woolfenden's music, come together with such effect. It should be seen, despite the risk of aching backs, in its totality. But even in pieces it would be memorable, and it brings great honour to the British stage.

Ned Chaillet

The Times, 17.4.78

Coming up Roses

The Royal Shakespeare Company's annual migration south has at last brought Terry Hands's three productions of Henry VI to the Aldwych. First seen at Stratford last June, the trilogy won much-deserved praise and its arrival here must surely confirm it as the most spectacular and magnificent theatre in London.

Adorers of Alan Howard - I admit at the start I am one - still have three Saturdays on which to see one of his famous marathons, when the company perform Parts I, II and III at a single sitting.

It is certainly imperative to see the plays as a trilogy, for only then does it become clear how triumphantly Terry Hands has staged this largely unknown work.

In a tremendous feat of imagination, he draws out and defines Shakespeare's vision of England's tragic fall from grace from the "world's best garden" to a state of order as rotten as a tankard apple.

The rot is largely external in Part I, a series of energetic, battle-crammed episodes which tell the story of England's war against rebellious France. Part II is a study of social corruption at court and among the commons where Jack Cade's rebellion is manipulated by an ambitious nobility. And in Part III we see the inevitable conclusion of Henry VI's reign in open warfare between York and Lancaster and bloody carnage.

In this chronicle of a savage half-century of English history, what is it that binds the three plays together? In Hands's production, it is the ideal of the ordered state and civil harmony which must eventually prevail even over violence.

The death of Henry V whose reign is invoked as a Golden Age throughout the trilogy, destroyed the necessary equilibrium between the divine might and right of kingship. It is his son, Henry VI, who can most keenly lament the contrast between bold Harry and St. Henry.

Individual performances enrich the three plays with a stamp on the passing of time. Julian Glover seizes upon Warwick's chilling and rapacious vanity. Emrys James is excellent as Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, a man possessed by vaunting ambition and lascivious in his greed for the crown.

Alan Howard's Henry is best in Part III, where this fine and intelligent actor conjures his familiar marvels from a richer text.

Images of violence burn in the mind long after the plays are over. Like Joan La Pucelle (Charlotte Cornwell) leading the French troops forward through cannon-smoke, clasping a burning torch.

And, most unforgettable of all, the mailed fists of York and Lancaster plucking red and white roses, the delicate emblazons of their enmity.

Jane Ellison

Evening Standard, 24.4.78

Reigning Supreme

No day has given me more unremitting reward than the one spent watching the Royal Shakespeare Company's magnificent, three-part epic of Henry VI unfurl itself.

It was exciting enough discovering virtually unplayed Shakespeare week by week at Stratford last season, but this weekend the company mounted all three sections, beginning at 10.30 in the morning and marching through Henry's blighted reign until well past 11 at night.

Seeing Terry Hands's vision in its entirety, one can only marvel: first at the whole, then at the parts. We have, of course, glimpsed this blood-splashed nadir of English history in their celebrated Wars of the Roses cycle. But that was Shakespeare chopped and changed to meet the needs of its day.

This is pure Shakespeare - entirely faithful to the author's intent.

Historical pageant is the key to Part I, where we first see the early reign of the hapless, well-meaning young king (Alan Howard) set in seedy contrast to the victories and valour of his father, Henry V.

Here, personalities in the true sense rarely inter-react or impose themselves on the grand design of history's fate.

Charlotte Cornwell's flame-haired Maid of Orleans is also allowed a rounded characterisation, part warrior-mystic, part chauvenist, part sensual woman.


However, as Part Two slips into the Machiavellian horrors of the Wars of the Roses, the characters begin to take a grip from within the text, and the piece takes on a vivid narrative.

What is amazing, in view of Shakespeare's later prudent partisan re-arrangement of history for his Royal patrons, is his youthful sense of fairness here. He goes to endless pains to establish the Yorkists' legal claim to the throne, giving Emrys James wonderful scope for spite, hatred and outraged indignation as the Duke.

At the centre of the production, of course, is Alan Howard's Henry, a beautifully modulated creation taking the King from his youth and his weak man's delight in irrevocable action to the saintly stoicism - almost cynicism - of his last days.

Peter McEnery's elegantly sensual Earl of Suffolk confirms him as one of the finest classical actors of our time.


As Henry's carnal Queen, Margaret, Helen Mirren's performance has deepened considerably in scope and understanding. She darkens from a wilful voluptuous girl to the She-wolf tragedy Queen with a real and chilling authority.

Again one must hail the emergence of Anton Lesser as a new claimant to a great future. In his first professional role since leaving RADA, he makes the final part of the epic very much his own as a demonic, deformed young Richard Gloucester, smiling with a hooligan's innocence as he plots and kills.

This is a starry performance which makes the prospect of his fully fledged Richard III merely a matter of time.

A memorable day. If you can't see all three, do at all costs see one.

Jack Tinker

Daily Mail, 17.4.78

Henry VI

To see the three parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI all in one day dispels what remains, after seeing the plays on consecutive evenings at Stratford last summer, of my reservations about their quality. They are not, seen like this, sprawling or inexpert. On the contrary, they make up a serial tale that is told with uncommon craft, the variety of the chosen scenes from history (as recounted by Hall, Holinshed and Fabyan) building into a story as well made as you could ask. There will never again be any excuse for juggling with the plays as Peter Hall and John Barton juggled with them 18 years ago. On the other hand there would be little profit in presenting any of the three parts without the ability to see the other two: and ideally it should be possible to see Richard III afterwards.

This does not mean that only richly subsidised companies can mount the plays, for Terry Hands demonstrates in this masterly production that small casts and little scenery are a positive advantage. Sweet are the uses of adversity: they have driven the Royal Shakespeare Company into a truly Shakespearean style.

To my mind this is the best Shakespeare production I have ever seen. There is no scenery, no more than a token growth of grass; but there is a spare yet powerful use of props - cannon mostly in Part I, where the war is on an international scale, the Throne and the benches of Parliament in the other parts, but quite often nothing - and there are fine costumes devised so that the wearer is always recognisable.

This last point is important, for Mr. Hands having no great armies of extras to fill out his battle-scenes, important battles are fought only by the principals. There is thus no interruption in the narrative. In Part III, for instance, before the battle at Towton, Henry has been asked tp leave the field ("the Queen hath best success when you are absent"). He insists on staying, but sits apart in a corner of the stage; and he stays there throughout the ensuing alarum and excursions until a lull enables him to speak his thoughts about the delights of rural life (somewhat too colourfully done by the generally admirable Alan Howard) and to overhear the laments of the son who has killed his father and the father who has killed his son. The action is fast and continuous from "Hung be the heavens with black" to "Here, I hope, begins our lasting joys."

The production has been enriched during its Stratford run by some telling touches of detail and some deeper characterisation. Joan la Pucelle has lost her manic giggles; Charlotte Cornwell's red-haired tomboy is now as credible a Joan as Shaw's, though painted in different colours. (Twice Shakespeare predicts - in 1591! - that the French will have her made a saint.) Helen Mirren allows her Margaret to mature more than she did. It is part of Mr. Hands's system to keep the characters instantly recognisable; Margaret wears the same part-coloured dress at her coronation as at her capture by Suffolk on the field at Angiers. But she has now made herself much more the fighting Queen in the civil wars than heretofore. It is a grandly chilling performance, most memorable, naturally, in the capture and assassination of York (Emrys James).

Alan Howard's Henry, too, grows up more convincingly. I have no space, alas, to give credit wherever credit is due: I must mention only briefly Julian Glover's towering Warwick, Graham Crowden's Gloucester, David Swift's Talbot, Anton Lesser's Richard, all of them notable. One performance though, is quite exceptional - Peter McEnery's Suffolk, superbly spoken, gracefully played, outstandingly intelligent. Mr. McEnery is our best Shakespearean actor since Richard Burton, no question about it.

B.A. Young

Daily Telegraph,

All Henry VI in a day

When the Royal Shakespeare Company presented the Henry VI trilogy at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, on Saturday, the ovation after nine hours (with necessary breaks for food and watering) was not only for the tour de force by the company but also a self-congratulatory pat on the back for the stamina of the audience.

Henry VI, 1, 2, and 3 are rarely, if ever performed, simply because they are not very good plays. John Barton extracted the best and most salient parts for his Wars of the Roses, but only the genius of Terry Hands could envisage embarking upon the daunting prospect of the complete uncut version.

Knowing that the artistic merit of the plays has limitations - the French scenes in Part 1 are supposed not to have been written by Shakespeare, and there are the unsatisfactory use of rhyming verse in Parts 1 and 2, the diversity in characterisations, the uneven structures of too many battle scenes and the overall complexity of the plots - Mr Hands has quite rightly simplified the staging: using follow spots and a curtain of light to isolate his areas, and a specially built raked stage, which tips the actors forward.

The hydraulic bridge and floor opening up make flexible and varying acting areas, without the obstruction of a permanent and rigid set. The three plays viewed as a whole leave a series of indelible impressions that add up to an invaluable link between the patriotic drama of Henry V and the power-crazed intrigues of Richard III.

Alan Howard, who was impressive as Henry V, now plays the son, Henry VI; weak, saintly, easily swayed by his elders and who finally retreats inside himself to escape the polemics of his court and queen.

The English possessions in France engage Joan of Arc and Talbot in battles that bring about their deaths, while Cade's rebellion instigates the Wars of the Roses, and the deaths of Suffolk, Gloucester, Somerset and Clifford. The open and bloody struggle to place the Prince of Wales on the throne instead of York ends with Henry's death at the hands of the future Richard III.

With great attack and strength the cast, playing 100 named parts between them, deliver their lines straight out to the audience with a vigour and fire that give these insignificant plays a new vitality and importance. I will always remember David Swift's stocky Talbot, Charlotte Cornwell's strumpet la Pucelle, Julian Glover's "wind-changing" Warwick, James Laurenson's demonic Cade, Emrys James's York and Anton Lesser's Richard, but above all the incredibly alive spirit of the three plays unfolding one after the other on a memorable and unique occasion.

Diana Harker

Manchester Guardian, 1978.

Shakespeare in Britain

This has been a year for collectors, particularly at Stratford-upon-Avon, where Terry Hands directed the complete trilogy of Henry VI.

Like most of us at any Shakespeare revival, whether the play is familiar or unfamiliar, I listen for a few unremarkable lines - for something that, for one reason or another, has touched me in the past and lingers unescapably in the mind. Though he seldom had a chance to hear it, Robert Speaight, I know, used to wait for a phrase of Timon: "In the sequence of degree / From high to low throughout." Similarly, I have never been to 1 Henry VI without seizing upon the second and third lines of the first act (no waiting here), Bedford's "Comets, importing change of times and states, / Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky." So far I have heard them only four times in the theatre. 1 Henry VI at Birmingham Repertory in 1953 was the last of the thirty-seven plays I met in performance: it had taken nearly thirty years.

At Stratford-upon-Avon last summer the old excitement recurred at once. I was brought up on a southern Cornish cliff, very close to a famous lighthouse. One winter night, in childhood, I had reached for a book that stood upon a shelf above the fireplace. The books were tightly-packed; the wrong one came down. It was a complete Shakespeare, and when it fell upon the rug I began to read it at the page where it had opened......, the first scene of 1 Henry VI. Later that night, when the lighthouse beam penetrated the closed blinds of my bedroom window, vanished, returned, and vanished again on its rhythmical round, I found myself thinking of the evening's strange line, "Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky." Whenever the Duke of Bedford has spoken it in the theatre, memory has flashed back across the years.

Agreed, this is not drama criticism but, as Johnson said of the bear in The Winter's Tale, a naughty superfluity. However, let me say that Jeffery Dench spoke the lines so imaginatively at Stratford that for me - as, indeed, for practically all my colleagues, though they had not the same personal interest - the trilogy of Henry VI moved splendidly into performance. It never fell below the quality of that opening when, one by one, the Dukes of Bedford, Gloucester, and Exeter, and the Bishop of Winchester, emerged from the gloom of Westminster Abbey to mourn King Henry V, "too famous to live long."

We were grateful for Terry Hands's thoroughly straight, strong-driving revival. The trilogy had not been acted since John Barton's daring conflation thirteen years earlier. Theatrically, those were stimulating nights. Because they stimulated, and the plays were little known, few - except some startled scholars - complained about the very free adaptation and Mr Barton's skill in pastiche, a sustained verbal partership with Shakespeare.

But adaptation was inessential. Whatever Ben Jonson said about "three rusty swords .... and some few foot-and-a-half long words," the fact is that the youthful war correspondence can go direct from page to stage. Barry Jackson and Douglas Seale proved this in the early 1950s; we realized it again in 1977. The Henry VI trilogy is not just a scramble across a chaos of rock and pebble to some distant beach. If in the theatre, as at Stratford, the pace is swift enough, scene hurtling upon scene in the sharpest contrast - here the capture of Joan la Pucelle, there Margaret as Suffolk's prisoner - the narratives do come together in a unity of diversity. Moreover, it is important to have the three parts in sequence: a set of variations on one theme, unrestrained ambition, with King Henry himself, weary and bewildered, ambitious only for a monkish cell. Sean O'Casey, in a passage from the second volume of his autobiography, Pictures in the Hallway, has a perfect epigraph for the plays:

Battles, castles, and marching armies; kings, queens, knights, and esquires in robes today and in armour tomorrow, shouting their soldiers on to the attack, or saying a last lone word before poor life gave out; of mighty men of valour joining this king and reneging that one; of a king gaining a crown and of a king losing it; of kings and knights rushing on their foes and of kings and captains flying frantic from them......

Mr. Hands, using a deep, uncluttered stage, which in Part 2 he had carpeted with grass, let nothing get in the way until the very end when Henry's death in the Tower (Part 3, V, vi) was too anxiously devised. At this point the stage lifted, like the lid of a piano, to show the white-clad King festooned in chains - which seem always to attract Shakespearean directors - and Richard standing by, a sable demon. Anton Lesser is an extremely promising actor, but I felt that his Richard was over-mouthed, even in a production where all worked in bold primary colours.

1 Henry VI is much concerned with the "foreign quarrels" that Henry IV enjoined upon his son and that, in his grandson's time, are turning against the English. From Stratford, and perhaps because of its rarity, I think of the comically ingenuous little scene in which the Countess of Auvergne seeks to ensnare Talbot. Yvonne Coulette, an actress of uncommon presence and persuasiveness, made the business as easy as possible (even the line, "a weak and writhled shrimp"). Elsewhere, Charlotte Cornwell's Joan la Pucelle, fiery-haired, did not minimize the girl's confident arrogance; no warrior saint but an angry Tudor view of an ultimately forsaken witch. Early, she had one strange and not entirely legitimate moment of foreboding, when she backed away from the flare of a soldier's torch. We knew, even in Part 1, that Alan Howard's Henry, pious and contemplative, would be a haunted man. I was impressed, too, by Emrys James's York, a part last seen at Stratford in a forthright heroic performance by Donald Sinden. Emrys James, with equal validity, chose to be a near-hysterically ambitious, rose-sniffing neurotic, both single-minded and complex and undeniably a father for Richard III.

The late Clem McCallin's incisive speech reconciled us to that clumsily versified genealogy in Edmund Mortimer's death scene. McCallin's own sudden death in August took from Stratford an endeared player commandingly authoritative in many parts (especially the Northumberland of Richard II): a tragedy for both his wife, actress Brenda Bruce, and for the RSC. It was fitting, I think, that his last Stratford part should be the Salisbury York salutes in 2 Henry VI, V. iii:

That winter lion, who in rage forgets
Aged contusions and all brush of time
And, like a gallant in the brow of youth,
Repairs him with occasion.

More of 2 Henry VI was set in the open air than we had expected from the text. Mr. Hands's grass carpet kept reminding me, in later Shakespearean terms, of England's "fresh green lap" turned to the little world Hazlitt called a bear-garden. The play is a sierra of peak-and-valley, its dynastic quarrels governed by Margaret's cry, "I stood upon the hatches in the storm"; we were grateful for Helen Mirren's venomous command, though she could not blur our memories of Dame Peggy Ashcroft. Again, all was well with the performance. Alan Howard and Emrys James, Julian Glover's wind-changing Warwick, the fussily idiosyncratic Gloucester of Graham Crowden (who has the charming apology, "My choler being overblown / With walking once about the quadrangle ...."), Yvonne Coulette's angry assurance as his wife (though Mr. Hands did play down the Duchess's final humiliation) and the Cade of James Laurenson. Cade can be a mere invitation to rant, but Mr. Laurenson kept the roaring rebel within decent bounds (not an appropriate adjective, maybe) through a swirl of crowd scenes directed with almost Guthrie-esque enthusiasm. This, one of the first examples of Shakespeare's hatred of the mob, brought back to me Robert Speaight's favorite phrase (from another context), "in the sequence of degree." The Clerk of Chatham's murder, in its unreasoning savagery, never fails to remind me of the death of Cinna the poet.

So to 3 Henry VI, where the medieval game of power politics moves through the bloodshed of the civil war. Mr. Hands offered a consistently lucid diagram, and four players conquered. On Towton Field Alan Howard's King, his sighing, gentle longing never superimposed - for he is not an actor for externals - led the strange trinity of grief. Howard's Henry means more to me than David Warner's (in the haze now) did during the mid-1960s, though after a full quarter of a century some of Jack May's intonations at Birmingham are sovereign yet. Mr. Howard has grown to be a chameleon in the Shakespearean theatre. Just before Henry VI he had revived his Henry V with the light of Agincourt upon it; there, as in the trilogy, his speeches come to us newly-thought. He is seldom acting for the moment: in him "past, present, future meet." It is exploration in depth, and we recognized it, as ever, during the soliloquy upon the Towton molehill. On that other molehill, at Wakefield, Emrys James completed his unsparing bravura performance as York, almost eerily plausible, and splintering into an utter anguish that transformed the funtional text. Helen Mirren's Margaret, her "tiger's heart wrapped in a woman's hide" (a line that, varied, has a historical dimension of its own), kept a mocking fury unabated to the last: not a Margaret in the grand manner but a most authoritative miniature. There is little room for super-subtlety in such a chronicling as this; but Miss Mirren, Mr. James, and Mr. Howard all mined the text for often unsuspected wealth, and Julian Glover's Warwick preserved its controlling assurance. The end did trouble me a little. The play, it seemed, drifted away - though no doubt I was thinking wistfully of the famous Seale production of 1951 when, at curtain-fall, the opening lines of the first soliloquy of Richard III were beaten into silence by the clanging bells.

Never mind. Mr. Hands had achieved the production of the year, matched only by his Coriolanus, which opened in October: a play that A.V. Cookman, former drama critic of The Times, used to call a tragedy of pig-headed splendor. A distinguished Hungarian critic, who accompanied us to Stratford and who had never seen the play before, could hardly trust himself to speak when we came from the theatre - a tribute to Alan Howard, who had an extraordinary season.

J.C. Trewin.

Shakespeare Quarterly, Spring, 1978


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI