Friday, 23 August 2013

Theatre review: The True Tragedy of the Duke of York (Shakespeare's Globe & tour)

One of my unwritten theatre reviewing rules is to provide a summary of the play for people who might be unfamiliar with it. Sometimes that's easier than others, and when it comes to The True Tragedy of the Duke of York things could get very tangled up. Suffice it to say that as we get to the last of the Henry VI plays the Wars of the Roses are in full swing and over the next couple of hours loyalties shift, many die, enough sons lose their fathers to populate an entire season of The X Factor, and Henry himself is deposed not once but twice. The Globe have been keen to point out that the three plays can be enjoyed individually, but there's no preamble at the start of this installment as the cast dive straight into a swordfight left over from last night. Having witnessed the first battle in the War of the Roses, King Henry will try anything to avoid new bloodshed, including disinheriting his own son in favour of York's bloodline. But the rest of the Lancastrians are horrified at his capitulation, and will fight to keep him on the throne he knows himself unsuitable for.

After the mighty female soldier Joan of Arc of Part One, this third installment also sees Queen Margaret don men's armour, Mary Doherty's warrior queen revealing herself as the true power in Henry's court - not that it was ever the best-kept secret. It's also Graham Butler's strongest performance of the three: His weakness and cowardice exposed, Butler is able to use it to comic effect. But Shakespeare balances the king's failings by giving him a real goodness and holiness, and he quite movingly reflects on the carnage as he surveys the battle from a molehill on the sidelines. (Butler's also an enthusiastic jigger - the final jig sees him hitch his skirts up to show off a good pair of legs to add to his charms.)

The installation of Edward IV (Patrick Myles) in Henry's place might have been an end to the fighting except for a couple of complications: First off is his marriage to Lady Grey (Beatriz Romilly,) which offends the kingmaker Warwick (Andrew Sheridan) and sees him go over to the side of Lancaster. Warwick had been trying to broker a politically-advantageous marriage for Edward with a French noblewoman (David Hartley) which leads to some more shameless French-baiting after the interval, in a very funny scene (albeit one about as subtle as, well, Shakespeare) with Brendan O'Hea's outrageously camp French king.

The other complication comes from a figure who reminds us of how these plays aren't a trilogy but a quartet: Richard Duke of Gloucester proves a fearsome warrior for York despite his disabilities, but as the play goes on displays more of the viciousness and ambition that will come to a head in Richard III. Simon Harrison is enjoyably gleeful as he discovers his own wickedness, even if I sometimes found he overdid the leg-twisting. But I guess it's important to make it clear to the audience which Shakespearean villain's origin story this is.

Although the whole trilogy was good, I might have enjoyed The True Tragedy of the Duke of York most of all. With the factions now well and truly out in the open, the opposing sides can daub their faces in red or white, making it easier to keep up with who's fighting for Lancaster and who for York (even if the amount of switching sides that goes on means some of the actors have a few different coats of paint on their faces by the end.) There's some energetic fights (choreographed by Kate Waters,) genuinely funny moments, moving, contemplative scenes on the carnage unfolding and intrigue as a villain ascends. As a dastardly Richard approaches to murder a serene, accepting Henry, Nick Bagnall's production has found a subtlety of character development in these rough-around-the-edges plays.

The True Tragedy of the Duke of York by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 8th of September at Shakespeare's Globealso touring to Barnet, Belfast, Oxford, Cambridge and Bath.

Running time: 2 hour 20 minutes including interval.


  1. I liked Part Three best of the trilogy, too. Part Two is my favourite of the plays generally but I think the Globe's cuts meant this production of it is a bit fragmented. I also think Part Three benefits from the trilogy production as King Henry's molehill speech, for example, is very effective after we've all been watching battles, murders and in-fighting for 4+ hours beforehand.

    1. I think for all the "it's not a trilogy" stuff (and given the original title of Part II was The First Part of the Contention... I would argue it was a trilogy, except technically Richard III is Part 3 and Harry is a prequel) seeing them all together is very effective. It's interesting to see Henry develop from weak ruler who believes in his divine right to rule, into the character who makes that molehill speech, a weak ruler who knows he's not suited to the job. I thought Butler wonderfully balanced the comedy and sadness of his admission that everyone thinks he's of most use to the battle when he's nowhere near it.

      Of course, I'd also like to see this tested by seeing entirely different productions that approach each play on its own with its own high concept, but given their unpopularity I can't see that happening soon. Globe To Globe would have been the time to do that, but I didn't want to see these plays in foreign languages before I'd seen them in the original.