Henry - in three uneasy lessons

Following on their stirring production of Henry V the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford on Avon are now presenting the three parts of Henry VI. Last night's Henry VI, Part 1, proves that even the Bard could bite off more than he could chew and make history indigestible.

This is less a play than a quick skim through the crowded and bloody events that followed upon the accession of the boyish Henry VI and the turbulent quarrels between the English nobility that later became known as the Wars of the Roses.

No doubt certain characters like Henry himself, his wife Margaret, and the Earl of Suffolk will eventually take on substance and shape for those prepared to sit through the entire epic.

But judged on its own, this is a spotty, episodic, noisy dramatic event that is confusing, shallow and so stuffed with undistinguished writing that one can sympathise with those scholars who claim Shakespeare had little to do with it.

Some of the genealogical speeches sound as if they had escaped from Monty Python.

Aside from the belligerent power struggle between Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester and the irrational hatred between Plantagenet and Somerset, the play mainly concerns the fortunes of Lord Talbot and the English Army against the Dauphin and Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc).

As portrayed by Charlotte Cornwell, Joan is a provocative, mocking, red-headed witch far from the sweet virgin the dialogue proclaims her to be.

Pirouetting about the stage like a flirtatious gipsy in a Victor Herbert operetta, she is as credible a martial figure as Carmen Miranda leading a Mexican revolution.

The actual battle scenes are a big disappointment with actors rushing on and off the stage and swatting each other as if they were trying to stamp out a forest fire with cricket bats.

As director, Terry Hands has encouraged that stentorian rasping sort of speaking which might be described as full frontal bellowing.

It is a distinct relief to be soothed by the soft, almost apologetic, tones of Alan Howard as the timid, young Henry VI trying to knock some sense into his rampaging nobles by overwhelming them with whispers.

David Swift gives Talbot his full virile due and James Laurenson plays the Dauphin with unaccustomed vigour. Helen Mirren, as Margaret, looks as if she is going to make a formidable, sexy Queen of England.

There is still a long way to go in this ambitious trilogy of bellicose plays but, on present evidence, it looks as if Mr Hands is unlikely to repeat the triumph of 15 years ago, when skilful editing showed in John Barton's production of the Wars of the Roses what could properly be salvaged out of these unwieldy works.

Milton Shulman

Evening Standard, 13.7.77.


Playing Shakespeare/Henry VI, Part I