Shakespeare in Britain

The 'Henry VI' trilogy

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