This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Henry VI Part One, National Theatre Belgrade, dir. Nikita Milivojevic, 13 May 2012 at The Globe, London
By Pete Orford
Two things I never thought I would say about Henry VI Part One:
1. That was really funny.
2. My favourite characters were Vernon and Basset.
Let’s start with point one, shall we? This wasn’t just a production that embraced the humour of the play – it created it. Barely a scene went by without laughter, most frequently from the cast themselves. The endless squabbles of the nobles which we are so used to seeing performed po-faced by English companies became bar-room displays of bravado, as the speakers played to their fellows – who sometimes laughed with them (friend or enemy), and sometimes laughed at them. When Gloucester and Winchester, or later York and Somerset, squared up to each other, the emphasis was not just on being right, but being seen – and heard – to be right. Laughter proved a powerful tool, both defensive in providing support, and offensive in alienating the enemy. When Joan stood on trial amongst a circle of English nobles, her every word was met with jeers that she had to shout her way over to be heard. And for all the repartee between the English nobles, there would also be moments when one retort cut too deep and the laughter stopped, replaced with genuine offence and violence. Surprisingly amongst all this locker-room mentality, Henry (Hadzi Nenad Maricic) emerged as a figure of genuine power. The naivety of the character was ignored (when he met Talbot, he was not a giddy schoolboy meeting his hero, but rather looked bored as Talbot officiously and ceremoniously met his king), and in contrast to all the productions I’ve seen before, this king could be strong and stern; when he talked, people listened. When Gloucester and Winchester’s verbal sparring turned physical, and all the court descended into an anarchic brawl (played out in slow-motion and – of course – for laughs), Henry stopped them in their tracks. When York’s plea to have his title returned was presented to Henry, he weighed the matter up seriously while all the court looked upon him for his verdict. And when he chose his wife out of Gloucester and Somerset’s nominees, his decision was not to be argued with – even if he did decide by a Serbian variant of “Eeny meeny miny mo”.
And on to point two: Vernon and Basset. “Who? And Who?” I hear you ask? They are the servants of York and Somerset respectively who appear in 3.4 and 4.1, fighting out the cause of their masters, and that is as far as their role stretches in the text. But in this production, where all actors remained on stage throughout, the parts of Vernon and Basset (played by Pavle Jerinic and Bojan Krivokapic) were stretched across the entire play, with the pair acting as messengers, commentators and narrators on the action. We saw the actions of great men through the eyes of two people on the bottom rung of the ladder – a technique famously used by Akira Kurosawa in The Hidden Fortress (and later popularised by George Lucas in Star Wars) – and the hypocrisy of the various lords was frequently called out by the pair to the audience. Mortimer’s speech in particular was hilarious – a line never before written in a review of Henry VI Part One – as Vernon and Basset, visibly bored by the monotonous monologue, started acting up, portraying through mime the endless wrangling for the crown, playing kings, queens and murderers. Invisible babies popped out from between their legs only to be hurled aside by the other, while an imaginary crown was spun round on one finger before being drop-kicked into the audience.
Were this an English-language production, all this miming and mockery might be accused of detracting from the text; but here of course, given the Globe’s decision for surtitles to provide a synopsis of scenes rather than line-by-line translations, it was vital for the company to communicate to their audience through physical gestures rather than relying on dialogue. To support this further, music was ably employed by the company’s trio of flute, violin and accordion, while a key visual aid was an enormous round table that stayed on stage throughout. It was divisible into several pieces when necessary, such as when York and Somerset pulled the whole thing to pieces in the course of their disagreement, and through the course of the play it was, among other things, a council table, the Tower of London and the city of Orleans. The entrance of Joan (Jelena Dulvezan) was a wonderful fusion of gesture, music and props, as Charles (Aleksander Sreckovic) stood alone on the table, desperately trying to rally his troops who all sat resolutely on their chairs, hammering on the back of them like drums and chanting for him to give up on Orleans. His pleas had but a temporary effect, and as he rubbed his temples and cowered from the crescendo of drums, the table split open and Joan emerged through it, like a spirit raised from the grave. As she spoke to Charles, she walked around the stage, stopping the hands of each drummer one by one, until at last, with her support, Charles himself stayed the hands of the last dissenting percussionist. More effectively than words or synopsis, the power of Joan, and the new strength she gave to her king, was apparent to all.
The play sped along (just two hours including the interval), and scenes were cut, some expected (the Countess of Auvergne), some less so (the death of Talbot). When the play ended, it was, appropriately enough, Vernon and Basset who had the last word. As Suffolk performed his soliloquy, the pair eavesdropped upon him, and on his exit they emerged to hypothesise on what would come next for England. Growing ever more excited as each vied to present their mime of what was coming, Henry V’s ashes – which had lain in a casket in full view throughout the production as a permanent symbol of lost glory – was picked up and used by the pair as a prop, only to then be knocked over accidentally and the contents scattered. Henry V’s remains, as well as his legacy, was left blowing in the wind, while Vernon and Basset ran off before anyone found out. By the end of the day my early suspicions were proved correct – this was by far the best part of the Globe’s Balkan trilogy.
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Listen below to an interview with the director and the choreographer, recorded by the Globe Education Department:
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