Henry VI (review). Anne Cox watches bloody rebellion at Milton Keynes Theatre

Shakespeare came up with his own version of our troubled royal antecedents in an epic trilogy that put one of England’s weakest kings, Henry VI, at its heart.

Monday, 12th August 2013, 11:25 am
Graham Butler as Henry VI. Photo by Gary Calton
Graham Butler as Henry VI. Photo by Gary Calton

Under scrutiny there are probably quite a few liberties taken with the country’s dynastic struggles but my recollections of schoolgirl history is too poor to pick holes.

The Globe, The Bard’s spiritual home, has made an ambitiously good job of coming up with a fantastic trilogy of its own that is now touring.

Last week it pitched up at Milton Keynes Theatre (@mktheatre) to the delight of history buffs and drama fans.

Henry VI was a baby when he ascended the throne, following the death of his father, yet, as he grew, he showed little aptitude for the job.

As well as battling his uncle, Charles for France, he had domestic unrest - placating the houses of York & Lancaster, who were hell bent on waging the War of the Roses and stealing the crown for themselves

Staging a story as complex as this was no mean feat and it required commitment and understanding from the audience as each part was performed on different nights with a cast of 20 playing a multitude of parts.

Both Richard, Duke of York, and Edward Mortimer, take time out during moments of exposition, to attempt to explain the royal succession but it was as clear as mud. In fact my head spun with so many names, families and houses to unravel. Thank god our modern monarchy is so well behaved.

Instead it was best to sit back and enjoy what turned out to be a real treat, joined by a hardened group, who,like me, watched all three parts – nearly six hours of historical feuding – over two days.

There was Machiavellian plotting throughout and plenty of lusty battles and swordplay as the pitiful Henry tried to hold on to power.

The role of the king was expertly played throughout by Graham Butler who was eased into his seat on the throne with a first act where he simply sat and read his Bible as his guardian, and father figure, Gloucester, tried to fight off insurrection.

Fresh faced Butler looked every inch the schoolboy king who was manipulated throughout by pretty much everyone at court.

He was persuaded to marry Margaret, who, despite her failings, resolutely stood by her husband. Mary Doherty’s fiery queen was a terrifying sight to behold. Earlier in the trilogy we’d met Beatriz Romilly’s batty but passionate Joan of Arc. Maggie was in a different league, leading battles and murdering without hesitation.

At one point the stage became littered with heads (though The Globe showed considerable restraint in the ketchup department. Their Southwark stage is normally awash with the red stuff during its battle scenes).

Roger Evans had the misfortune of being beheaded twice (in differing roles) while Garry Cooper seemed to be dispatched with regularity throughout all three productions. Both provided strong support performances.

Brendan O’ Hea tried to earn sympathy as Richard Plantagenet, who claimed to be England’s rightful king and made several attempts at getting back on the throne (but his finest moment came with a hilarious cameo as the outrageous French King Lewis).

The real villain of the piece sneaked in under the radar in the third story, The True Tragedy of the Duke Of York.

One of Richard’s sons, also called Richard (whose remains were recently found under a Leicester car park), limped on to the stage, his arm strapped, his crooked back evident, to lay his ambitious plans open for taking the crown away from his own siblings.

Simon Harrison gave an outstanding turn as the duplicitous “crookback,” Duke of Gloucester, later to become Richard III, who plotted rebellion. You almost felt like booing the odious tratitor.

This was a tremendous week of entertainment. I can’t say I completely got on top of who was who and which side they were on (not easy when the same actor is playing several parts) but I’m now historically prepared for two Shakespearean sequels on my theatre calendar – David Tenant as Richard II at the RSC and Jude Law in Henry V in London’s West End, both at the end of the year, and Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II at The National Theatre later this month.