(based on William Shakespeare’s Henry VI: Parts 1, 2 and 3)
Part I: Revenge in France – Part II: Revolt in England
Adapted into two parts by Leon Rubin, Stratford Festival
SWORDS ‘N’ ROSES – Shakespeare’s Henry VI makes a slimmed-down and visually stunning appearance at Stratford.
Why would anyone want to mount – never mind watch – a play so long, so dull and so overshadowed by the same author’s better plays that it has been con¬signed to posterity for the better part of 300 years? That question may occur to theatregoers at this year’s golden¬ anniversary Stratford Festival, where, in an act of stubborn completism, artistic director Christopher Newton has pro¬grammed the end of Shakespeare’s history cycle, Henry VI, Parts I, II and III, and Richard III. Yet after watching Stratford’s slimmed-down and energetic production of Henry VI, audiences may be wondering what other rabbits the festival will pull out of its hat this season.
Richard III, one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest and best-loved plays, will not open until July, but the downsized Henry VI is already littering Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre with bodies in its portrayal of the venomous feud between the Lan¬casters and the Yorks. Henry VI is one of Shakespeare’s earliest (written between 1590 and 1592), and in its three untruncated parts, it is a lumbering brute that runs in excess of 12 hours and can cause severe headaches from inhalation of fake smoke. Even edited, its production is still a rarity, and when that happens, it is usually just an appetizer to the main course of Richard III.
But here Stratford offers a surprising amuse gueule. The task of wrestling Henry into a manageable form for Stratford fell to British director Leon Rubin, whose previous stops have included London’s Old Vic and Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. He has also spent considerable time in the theatres of Thailand and Japan, absorbing visual traditions that he puts to masterful use here.
Monnette offered Rubin the chance to direct one of two extant adaptations of the play, but Rubin opted for a bigger challenge and decided to create a new version divided into two parts rather than the original three.
This is not, however, Shakespeare lite. “The job of a modern adapter or director is to find what will speak to modern audiences,” says Rubin, “and to get rid of what is decoration.” His tactic has been to cut out most of the rhetorical posturing in the original and render it into something today’s audience would want to follow. This is a difficult task, on the order of translating an ancient tongue into a modern one: How do you do it without extinguishing the soul of the original? Here it does seem that Rubin’s greater successes are onstage, where he has forcefully dramatized the play’s complexities, rather than on the page.
Few theatregoers will know the story of Henry VI very well. It depicts the gradual and wrenching fall from the throne of the young King Henry VI, played here with helpless sincerity by Michael Therriault. Henry is the bookish son of a manly king, Henry V; crook-backed Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (booming and physically imposing Thom Marriot), claims proper succession but keeps under his hat his designs on the crown. Instead, his supporters don white roses to show their Yorkist allegiance, while the King’s Lancastrian supporters wear red ones. (Hence the cycle’s, and the period’s, better-known designation as the War of the Roses.) Amid all this, Henry is at war in France, striving to bring that country to heel under English rule, a campaign that will be won only when he weds power-hungry Margaret (played with stunning ferocity by Seana McKenna), daughter of the French Duke of Anjou, thereby joining his throne with that of France.
The story of Henry’s fall, in Rubin’s version, is mercifully shorter than in the original but not without some dubious sacrifices. For one, Rubin has elected to temper Shakespeare’s hatred of Joan of Arc, France’s supernaturally inspired heroine in the battle with England. “Joan of Arc is one of the most interesting unknown characters in Shakespeare,” Rubin says. “In the original text, to the English she’s a witch and to the French a saint. But Shakespeare very much dominates his play with the English view.” In his fast-forward version, Rubin cuts out Joan’s more incendiary speeches, sending her to the stake a thwarted warrior rather than the venomous harlot-demon Shakespeare intended. As played by Michelle Giroux, this Joan is a fevered tomboy who just wants to fight. Rubin’s best instincts are not in editing but onstage, where he uses John Pennoyer’s spare, elongated set to tremendous effect. Its main feature is a steel catwalk that allows Rubin to divide the playing area left and right as well as high and low, transforming the stage into battlements, city gardens, boudoirs, scuzzy alleyways, bridges, fields and cemeteries. Within these locations, he takes a page out of Far Eastern stage traditions, creating big, vibrant images that speak even more clearly than the text does. In one scene, a French revel takes place behind a paper curtain that blossoms with ribbons of blood when it is brutally cut short by English swordsmen. In another, he dramatizes the taking of sides in the argument over York’s entitlement to the throne with a huge St. George standard, festooned with red and white roses.
Rubin has got a bouquet of good to excellent performances out of his troupe. Marriot’s performance as the Duke of York is especially riveting; it is his unswerving service to his family’s right to the throne that makes Henry’s tragedy so inevitable. Some of the lesser roles, though, do not stick as well in the mind. With many in the company playing more than one character, the audience may like and dislike the same actor many times throughout the evening-not to mention experiencing the confusion that can arise from the occasional “Didn’t he just die?” moment.
With the disagreements over what Shakespeare wrote and didn’t write, and which version from what folio is the one he intended to be performed, Rubin’s Henry VI is one more splash of fuel on the ever burning fires. But even if you don’t agree with his speeded-up approach, this is visually stunning theatre and likely a much more enjoyable production than Shakespeare himself ever had the pleasure of seeing in his own day.
Although it slides from being absolutely brilliant in Part I to pretty damn good in Part II, the Stratford Festival’s production of Henry VI which opened on Saturday at the Tom Patterson Theatre is a must-see viewing for anyone interested in exciting theatre.
Director Leon Rubin has taken the three parts of Shakespeare’s early trilogy on the life and times of King Henry VI and turned it into two substantial episodes, played out with breathtaking attack against a bold, multi-leveled structure of steel.
The first, called Henry VI: Revenge in France (*****), deals with the early years of the young king who ascends to the throne as a mere child after the untimely death of his heroic father, Henry V.
Throughout this three-hour epic, Rubin’s hand never wavers. There are battle scenes of sculptural beauty, violence that provokes horror without laughter and staging that illuminates the text at every turn.
Rubin moves ahead with confidence, allowing the complicated spider web of family histories to sort themselves out and trusting to his cast to put flesh on these frequently fleeting skeletons.
Rubin has pulled all the stops … staging it throughout the theatre, making frank use of the audience and spicing it with anachronistic but strangely appropriate humour.
All in all, these plays combine to form an impressive piece of theatre. Thanks to Rubin and his excellent collaborators the end result provides some of the most solid Shakespeare to be seen at Stratford in recent years.
Coming at the start of its 50th season, it’s a genuine cause for celebration in the land of the trumpet and the swan.
Holding the stage, in a single afternoon and night, was Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy – or perhaps, one should say, the essence thereof. This unwieldy and uneven sequence has been newly consolidated by British Director Leon Rubin into two tight, clear, burnished plays renamed Henry VI: Revenge in France and Henry VI: Revolt in England.
Rubin’s adroit, two part editing melts away the equivalent of one full play and yet nothing seems to have been sacrificed; instead of loss, one finds a careful sharpening of causes and events. Not incidentally, the editor is also the director here, and he has imbued both plays with enough storm and gore to make one feel history tremble and enough quiet to define these marauding rivals and to frame their human nature.
Especially effective in Rubin’s down-sizing is his decision to begin the second part of the tale, Revolt in England, with the historical muddle-headed people’s insurrection led by Jack Cade. Like their noble counterparts, Cade’s gang of ruffians makes creative use of designer John Pennoyer’s bi-level, metal-frame battlements, an adaptable contraption on which to climb, pounce or die.