Howard fascinates as dazed Henry VI

Already it is clear that Stratford's exciting new venture, Shakespeare's tetralogy of history plays, is going to show us the 25-year-old dramatist's attempt at a mighty epic - flawed in execution but redeemed by a passionate sense of purpose.

The series begins with a revival of last year's Henry V. In Alan Howard's performance this already presents a king horrified by the war he seems obliged to fight.

In Terry Hands's production of its sequel, the first of the Henry VI plays comes across as a frightening object lesson for his countrymen of what happens when "civil dissension gnaws the bowels of the Commonwealth."

The opening scene shows angry barons disputing over Henry V's coffin, and is cleverly paralleled later when they rage in court across the etiolated, pallid figure of his adolescent son.

And when, across the seas, the valiant general Talbot sends for aid against Frenchmen given new heart - and no wonder - by Charlotte Cornwell's sexy and flamboyant Joan of Arc, the barons prefer to huff and puff in each others faces. Ironically, while Joan reconciles the divided French, the stupid English quarrel like cats.

A capital scene in Temple Gardens in London shows them tearing roses white and red from a bush so as to line up their rival factions. And so the war is lost.

Although there is some fine verse - lines about comets brandishing their crystal tresses in the sky - the young author has not yet learned, as he will, to vary his monotonous rhetoric with back-street fun and games.

The story is episodic, and at its worst the production is a confusion of wooden cannon, fake smoke, and shouting exchanges between people with names out of Bradshaw - Gloucester, Warwick, Winchester and York.

But it loses grip only momentarily. The sardonic Emrys James, the bluff David Swift, the alluring Peter McEnery as barons, and Alan Howard as the dazed King, are always fascinating to watch, so that the urgency of the thing keeps striking home. I look forward eagerly to tonight's second episode.

John Barber

The Daily Telegraph, 13.7.77.


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI, Part I