Year of Shakespeare: Henry VI Part One

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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.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!

 

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

 

Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:

Listen below to an interview with the director and the choreographer, recorded by the Globe Education Department:

 

Want to know what others thought of this performance? Look below to find out:

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Author:Pete Orford

Pete's doctoral thesis followed and challenged the development of the history cycle on the English stage. Most recently he has published several books and articles on Charles Dickens and the lesser-known author Fitz-James O'Brien; a full profile of his research and publications can be found at http://bham.academia.edu/PeteOrford
  • Before the G2G season, the Henry VI trilogy and Henry VIII were the only histories I hadn’t seen (or read or studied, for that matter). So I went along for all three Henry VIs in one day armed with my texts of the plays. I’d all sorts of differing opinions and thoughts on these plays – many seemed to say that they were pretty dull (in comparison to the later histories at least). So I did my best to walk into the Globe space with an open mind, but it isn’t easy to forget others’ voices.

    Like Jason, I found this production really surprised me with its humour. I loved the observation on history through a kind of lens, being able to see it for, in many ways, what it really is: a long line of figures squabbling and fighting over a ‘hollow crown’. It proved that this play, and arguably the histories as a whole, have a current of humour running throughout which nurtured and encouraged by actors and creative team can make the plays in production more rich and varied than we are, perhaps, used to.

    Along with the humour, I also enjoyed the creative ways in which the simple set was used. Imagination really did run riot (in a good way!) in this production.

  • I am gonna save this blog, there are so many clues about how to make Henry VI p1 a great show and they might come in handy one day

  • Pete_Orford

    Thanks Jason. There was certainly an air of mockery throughout, a historical equivalent of “Have I Got news for You”, with the cast mocking the gravity of events by interposing commentaries on individual motives. The wonderful blocking that followed the return of York’s title, where York’s supporters and Somerset’s supports formed two lines and took it in turns to step forward and shake his hand, almost like a country dance, where the congratulations alternated between sincere and superficial, was a great moment that perfectly captured not only the lies of the political world, but also the fact that both we and the players know that they are lies.

    Likewise the wrangling between York and Somerset as the messengers desperately tried to get help for Talbot, and the way their cries of how they’d love to help but can’t were exposed by the knowing looks of the messengers (Vernon and Basset again) that this was all baloney. The youthfulness of the cast and direction came through in that these moments of commentrary were played not with a weary sense of “what has the world come to?”, but more a gleeful, anarchic ribbing of those in power.  

  • Jason

    The humor of this presentation surprised me greatly.  I actually know more about Serbia’s history during the early-mid 1400s than I do about English history, and some interesting parallels can be drawn.  During this time period, Serbia was losing great swaths of recently conquered territory to the Ottoman Empire.  They had no strong king to unite them, so there was a great deal of squabbling among the nobles, each of whom attempted to carve out their own fiefdom.  All of this is quite similar to the conditions prevalent in Henry VI’s court, and would be well known to the Serbian cast.  So I went into the performance on Sunday expecting a dramatic lament on loss and leadership.

    Instead, I came away with a sense of the absurdity of dynastic struggles and aristocratic airs.  This is something that I think derives from having a young cast and director, who have lived through a time of conflict brought on by manipulative leaders, and are now faced with the task of putting the pieces together, both on the ground and in their minds. 

  • Anonymous

    In some ways I think the written order of the plays further strengthens the generation anxiety. Henry V is a figure talked about but not seen (consider Hamlet’s father, or even Julius Caesar in the G2G production – see this site’s review by Sonia Massai for more details). As a consequence he is not a man, but a legend, simultaneously more than he was in life, and less, for while his reputation is now boundless, he is nonetheless dead, intangible, and of no use to his people beyond his reputation. Thus the opening scene in which the nobles cling to his memory is both a celebration of his life and their honouring of that (compared to the many subsequent deaths that warrant either scorn or no response at all), and an indictment of the court’s inability to move on.

  • Jzinn84

    Thanks for the detailed response.  I appreciate the clarifications about Henry – I can see how he could be portrayed expressing decisions with confidence and the point about his being new to the throne is well taken.  One of my major concerns about Henry is not just making bad or questionable decisions, but his lack of understanding of what it means to be leader.  The decision on Somerset and York is bad enough, but not recognizing the need to lead by example  – be with his soldiers is more damning in my mind. 

    Regarding the idea that the text is about generation anxiety contrasting the noble attitudes of Henry V with the more “savy” notions of Henry VI’s generation – does the fact that all of the Henry VI plays were written before Henry V have an impact on that idea?   In other words would readers/audiences reading/seeing Henry VI, Part 1 without the content of the plays of the second tetralogy be able to clearly see that distinction?  Just asking a question, not expressing an opinion at this point.

    Thanks again for your post and responses.

  • Anonymous

    The portrayal of Henry is an interesting point. I’ve always argued of the history plays that we should be free to interpret the characters without the shackles of the chronicles, that directors should focus on the here and now rather than events outside the boundaries of each text. Because these three plays are so frequently produced as one piece of drama with one director, characters often become homogenised across the three parts rather than embracing the different reuqirements of each play, so the York’s young son Richard who pops up at the end of Part Two, and is both heroic and brave in the context of that play, is always acted as Richard III and all which that implies.

    So I like that your concerns with a strong Henry refer specifically to moments in this play. You’re right to say his judgment wasn’t always the best; my point was rather that, irrespecitive of the quality of his decisions, he expressed them with confidence and they were received with respect. After all, he is still new to the throne at this stage, and civil wars and endless claims to the throne have yet to shake the country’s faith in him.

    I was also interested in your ideas of defeat being at the heart of this play. For me, when reading the play (and here I am speaking about the text rather than this production specifically), it is about generation anxiety; with the noble, ultimately outdated attitudes of Henry V’s generation contrasted to the two-faced, politically savvy generation of Henry VI. Consider the frustrated attempt of Talbot to call out the French for an honourable fight, which they wisely decline. The old guard are doomed to fail unless they adapt; Talbot, Bedford and Salisbury all die, Gloucester loses the argument with Suffolk, and it is Winchester, who starts the play as one of the older generation, making bold claims and brawls at the Tower of London, who adapts to survive, bribing his way into power by the end of the play. Of course, it is the older generation who are the more admirable in their honesty and code of honour, so that the evolution of characters and the court to the ways of the new generation will always define this play as a tragedy. Henry’s choice of Margaret – the way he is swayed by Suffolk’s style rather than the substance of Gloucester’s argument – shows how the King himself is subject to the same decline in morality and is the final betrayal of Henry V. Returning to this production, that final image of Henry V’s ashes being spilt – and above all, that this action was not one of deliberate malice but carelessness (who leaves the remains of a monarch in such a perilous and unguarded position?) – emphasised that betrayal and loss of the father.

  • Jzinn84

    In my view, Henry VI, Part 1 is about defeat, not just the causes of defeat, but the failure to learn from defeat.  Looked at in this way much of the English failure to hold Henry V’s French conquests foreshadows the even greater disasters of the rest of the tetraology.  In that vein I can see how this production’s approach could support that view by expanding responsibility to followers as well as leaders. 

    On the other hand I find any interpretation that presents Henry VI as a strong figure of power to be very troubling.  I understand the desire to do something more than the “holy idiot” approach to Henry VI and I’m not suggesting he can’t be a sympathetic figure, but the instances where he acts with power are few and far between.  Later in the scene where Henry VI meets Talbot, he makes the disastrous decision to have the quarreling Somerset and York work together to support Talbot against the French thereby insuring the latter’s defeat and death.  Henry then effectively tells the two men to go fight his battles while he goes home to England – not the kind of behaviour we would ever expect from his father.

    I’m grateful for both the production and especially the review especially because it encourages thinking about this too neglected play in new ways.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Alan. The performance was in Serbian. My friend who attended the performance with me comes from a Serbian family, and was able to understand about 60% of the language. He told me that, in terms of translation, the script was in modern Serbian rather than an attempt to reproduce archaic or stylised language. That said, increasingly throughout the performance my friend, who was unfamiliar with the play, became more involved with the actions than the language and found more clarity and understanding through this. I would be interested to know whether there were any audience members more proficient in Serbian and to what extent they found the staging to support or confront the language.

  • Alanpemberton16

    An enjoyable review-from a learned Reviewer but what language was used for this production please?

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