I recently had the pleasure of working as an advisor for a production of Henry VI Part Three by the Lit Moon Theatre Company, directed by John Blondell, in Santa Barbara, California. This production partly represented a run-up for Blondell with his home company in preparation for the production he will direct with the Bitola National Theatre of Macedonia as part of a Balkans trilogy of the Henry VI plays for the Globe to Globe project (in the World Shakespeare Festival). With this larger goal in mind, the show brought together Nikita Milivojevič, Serbian director of 1 Henry VI, and Adonis Filipi, Albanian director of 2 Henry VI, with Blondell to plan all three productions, and they were joined by Tom Bird, Festival Director at Shakespeare’s Globe.
As far as I know this was only the second completely stand-alone production of Henry VI Part Three since Katie Mitchell’s memorable Henry VI The Battle for the Throne (Royal Shakespeare Company in 1994). Lit Moon’s performance was just as thrilling and imaginative, but in different ways. Using a pared-down text, five women and three men propelled the play’s dynastic face-offs, stylised battles, and cascading personal tragedies, using deft non-illusionist modes of stage presentation.
Unlike Mitchell’s materially detailed production, Lit Moon’s was a black-box affair with minimal but suggestive props. These included a wooden children’s chair over which Henry, York and their supporters wrangled, a jar of sand Queen Margaret poured out to make York’s (and later Henry’s) molehill, and three high-floating yellow balloons the York brothers delicately paraded to celebrate their victory at Barnet, and then aggressive popped in competition with Lancastrians holding black balloons, to signal the final combat at Tewkesbury.
Part Three’s Fourth Act, when kings swap back and forth, has traditionally been seen as a sign of an apprentice (or even bored) Shakespeare mechanically following his chronicle sources. One of Blondell’s breakthroughs was to speed up this act without losing narrative coherence, exploiting the back-and-forth in a way the fast-spoken Elizabethan theatre might have done (and obviously helped by the slimmed text). This allowed him to relax the pace in Act Five and linger over the rhetorically varied tragedies of Warwick, Prince Henry, and the King, before the final up-tick of self-congratulation by the Yorkists, skewed by Richard’s Judas-kiss.
The production’s first half anticipated this pattern, hurtling towards Henry’s time-out at Towton (2.5). There Victoria Finlayson’s conflicted but self-possessed King summoned up a convincing georgic alternative to war. The Sons and Fathers confirmed her wisdom not by plangent melodrama but by accentuating her formal dignity. Walking on quietly and standing slightly apart, the Son and Father turned sadly to each other as the Son spoke, gradually recognizing the shared emotional devastation of their situation. The Father gently collapsed, the Son went down on one knee resting a hand on him, and assumed a funerary gaze. The Father and Son mirrored this action with slightly heightened emotion, and then joined Henry and their counterparts antiphonal laments whose restrained intensity movingly amplified the tragic affect.
I’m looking forward to seeing how Blondell and the Macedonian company further transform this lucid and unsparing take on the play at Shakespeare’s Globe in May.