Year of Shakespeare: Henry VI Part TwoHistoryYear of Shakespeare

  • Pete Orford
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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 Two, National Theatre of Albania, dir. Adonis Filipi, 13 May 2012 at The Globe, London

By Pete Orford

And on to the next part of the Balkan trilogy. While these marathon runs of the histories have become a common feature whenever they’re performed in Stratford, the Globe’s production played with the status quo with different companies producing each part. Consequently, rather than step into this part with a certain amount of background knowledge on the characters, we were flung into the dark again as we had to recommence identifying who was who and adjusting to the change in their portrayal. The strong Henry of part one became weak, the young and virile York became an older statesman, and the crowd-pleasing Gloucester was now a man with his mind fixed firmly on the job.

There are pros and cons to foreign language productions. The benefits, as the Globe programmes were keen to promote, are the lack of expectation and tradition that allow for fresh interpretations of familiar lines; in this Albanian production of Henry VI Part Two, iconic scenes like Beaufort’s death were cut by a company undaunted by the fame of such moments. But the major drawback of foreign language productions, the elephant in the room, is the loss of understanding. Other productions have found wonderful ways to overcome this; sadly this production did not. I have no doubt the play would have been very good had it been performed in English, but all too often, while characters stood statically performing their lines, I was aware of the audience failing to follow what was happening.

On three occasions the straight-forward direction was punctuated by surreal moments; the play began with four actors racing around the stage on scooters, wearing paper crowns. Before the scene in which Gloucester’s death was revealed, four dancers span the bed around the stage; and at the play’s close, when the crookbacked Richard left the stage having placed a paper crown upon the throne, the seat then moved forward of its own accord while a clarinet played a tune from the gallery. These moments were not integrated into the main action but were interludes either before or after scenes, and they neither gelled with the rest nor was the significance of their movements fully explained. The imagination behind these interludes merely contrasted with the staid approach to the rest of the play: On the whole this was an uneven production. Too often I found my attention drifting as a consequence of static blocking that prohibited conveyance of meaning (my favourite quote overheard after the performance, from a group of lads comparing this production to the Maori Troilus and Cressida: “The trouble is that in Europe we’re all thinkers. We’re not physical enough”. That explains my poor performance all those years in PE…).

Unsurprisingly then, one of the moments when the production ascended was during the Cade riots. The direct addresses to crowd, the slapstick banter and the to-ing and fro-ing of the mob from Cade to Buckingham all communicated well without the need to understand precisely what was being said. Cade’s followers were a ragtag bunch of the blind, lame and stupid. The comedy built around the blind girl, who desperately tried to keep up with the mob as they charged off to battle with little thought for her, was awkward; it was never clear if we were supposed to be laughing with her or at her, whether it was therefore okay to laugh, or whether we were simply mocking the disabled. Strange also was the director’s decision to cut the interrupting scenes of the nobility and present all of Cade’s scenes in one continuous run, which made the whole episode feel like a departure from the main plot, like we’d accidentally switched channels without realising. Given that Cade’s scenes started the second half of the production, the result was that when Henry finally returned to the stage after some hour’s absence, there was a moment of readjustment as the audience reacclimatised to the original drama.

The other striking moments of the production for me were the scenes of tenderness. The exiled Lady Gloucester left her husband with dignity, descending down amongst the groundlings with dignity; Suffolk and Margaret’s farewells (my favourite scene in the text) was movingly acted – Suffolk in particular was far more compelling as a desolate lover than he was playing the haughty nobleman. The cutting of Margaret’s response to Suffolk’s death, along with the long absence from the stage during the Cade deviation, resulted in a queen who, on her return to the stage, now conveyed genuine support and concern for her husband. After the madcap Kentishman had exited the stage, the royal couple entered with Margaret’s arms draped around Henry, and in the play’s final scene, what is usually portrayed as her haughty and frustrated command for Henry to flee became instead an entreaty, begging her husband to save himself. In that moment, when gestures and tone were paramount, I cared about the characters and their fates, but it was too late for this production. We looked ahead to the fates of the King and Queen, but the fruition of their journey would be left to another company to fulfil.

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