Thursday, 22 August 2013

Theatre review: The Houses of York and Lancaster (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

Nick Bagnall's revival of Shakespeare's Henry VI plays continues with The Houses of York and Lancaster (actually the original full title was The First Part of the Contention Between the Two Famous Houses of York and Lancaster but the Globe have clearly balanced authenticity with common sense.) Having started to stand up to Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in Harry the Sixth, King Henry (Graham Butler) inadvertently opened the door for his enemies to get rid of the Lord Protector once and for all. Humphrey's young wife (Beatriz Romilly) will be his downfall, and when she's caught dabbling in black magic her husband is forced to stand down. Emboldened by his relationship with the new queen, the Duke of Suffolk goes one step too far and has Humphrey killed. Soon he too is dead, and the power vacuum around the weak king leads the Duke of York (Brendan O'Hea) to finally show his hand as a rival contender for England's throne.

Once again this is a boisterous, speedy production of a play filled with complex factions and changing loyalties. It's to the production's credit that it isn't completely overwhelmed by this, but the longer first half does suffer from a plot that leaves you trying to piece together everyone's loyalties too much to get completely invested in the story.

But where The Houses of York and Lancaster plays its trump cards is in the last couple of acts, as after the interval things become much more focused, First we have a bit of a dry run orchestrated by York to test the waters of the nation's loyalty to Henry: A people's rebellion led by the charismatic Jack Cade (Roger Evans,) a funny, fearless man of the people whose doomed revolution is built on populist demands made to elicit cheers from the groundlings. And then finally the Duke of York shows his true colours as believing the crown to be rightfully his (based on a comically convoluted line of succession, nicely puncturing the confusion inherent in the story's complications.) The Wars of the Roses begin in earnest with the Battle of St Albans that leaves us with another cliffhanger for tomorrow's final part.

With the Histories' pro-Lancaster slant (you wouldn't want to piss off the Tudors) Shakespeare left out King Henry's lapses into insanity, but at times Butler's petulant man-child seems to bring them back, his fear and indecision breaking out into confused rages. Even as he tries to break away from his dependence on the Lord Protector, he shows a touchingly real love for the doomed Humphrey (Garry Cooper.) But he's also got a powerful woman to contend with, his new Queen Margaret (Mary Doherty) is now a force to be reckoned with in court and able to manipulate the factions - although, when her beloved Suffolk gets his head chopped off, she finds it can backfire too. Bagnall's production continues to have fun with the cast doubling by having Roger Evans' post-interval role of Cade come literally face-to-face with his own severed head from his pre-interval role of Suffolk. And a sense of fun is kept throughout the evening - perhaps at the expense of some of the emotion, the many deaths not really packing a punch. But two thirds of the way through, this continues to be a satisfying first encounter with the Henry VI plays.

The Houses of York and Lancaster by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 8th of September at Shakespeare's Globe; also touring to Barnet, Belfast, Oxford, Cambridge and Bath.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

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