Her Majesty the King
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 19, 2006
Her Majesty the King, a new (and first) play by Sarah Overman, takes one of the supporting characters from Shakespeare's War of the Roses plays and places her front and center, where the facts of history suggest she belongs. The character is Queen Margaret, the consort of King Henry VI—the French-born wife of Britain's weakest monarch who found herself at the center of a cycle of intrigue and wars and eventually led an army to try to save her husband's throne.
Overman, it should be noted, is not the first to have the idea of shining the spotlight on Margaret; the now (sadly) defunct Revolving Shakespeare Company condensed the Henry VI plays and Richard III to create a piece called Queen Margaret about five years ago that covers the same ground in the Bard's own words. Overman relies on the same source material to create a completely original play, though one whose historical accuracy is only as reliable as Shakespeare's (she suggests, for example, that the future Richard III murdered Henry VI, something that most historians would disagree with).
It's a ripping tale, though: Margaret arrives from France to become the wife of King Henry, who ascended to the throne while still a baby (his father, the famous Henry V, died young). Henry has neither the will nor the means to govern; he's concerned only with his religious studies, which here appear to be beyond fanatical. He also has no interest in consummating his marriage. The net result of all of this is that Margaret must look elsewhere for love/satisfaction (the handsome Duke of Suffolk is her choice for this), and also for the power she craves and to which she feels entitled.
The king's ineffectiveness—manifested most noticeably in the loss of all remaining British possessions in France save Calais—provides an opportunity to Henry's cousin Richard of York, who leads a bloodless coup against his monarch. He accuses Margaret of adultery (not outright, of course, but the implication is clear: he questions publicly whether the baby Prince of Wales is really Henry's son, and we, privy to the details of their sex life, know he is not). Richard proposes that he be appointed regent, with his own son Edward made Henry's heir. This outrages Margaret, and the war begins. Henry is quickly imprisoned, but Margaret raises an army and embarks on a doomed battle to save her crown and to win her son his doomed inheritance.
Overman uses a variety of theatrical styles to tell this exciting story, including Shakespearean-feeling verse passages, stylized adventure/fight sequences, and somewhat more contemporary-sounding expositional scenes. She creates a host of vivid supporting characters, such as the foppish and downright mean King Louis of France; the ambitious Elizabeth Woodville, who journeys from Margaret's closest confidante to her enemy during the course of the play; Margaret's grandmother Yolande of Aragon, here seen only as a ghost haunting the determined young queen; and, especially, Henry VI himself, who is portrayed here by Michael Keyloun (in the play's finest performance) as a man too simple and too good to live—mentally off-kilter but not the simpleton or lunatic that some have postulated.
What's missing, though, is the strong, fully-fleshed out Queen Margaret that this play really wants at its center. Overman's focus on storytelling—admirable in a play of this size—eventually tells on her: we never really get under Margaret's skin to find out what's behind her seduction of Suffolk and her arrogant desire for battle; she remains the witchy, creepy woman we remember from Shakespeare (Margaret's the scary old crone who curses everybody in Richard III). Some of the responsibility lies with director Patrick McNulty and the two actresses who play Margaret at different ages, Lisa McCormick (young Margaret) and Diana LaMar (the more mature Queen), who have elected to portray the character at top-speed throughout. Their Margaret is a bitter shrew who yells and carries on all the time; more nuance and shading might have helped us better understand who this woman really is.
McNulty's staging, otherwise, is quite wonderful. The sets, by Luke Cantarella, are fluid and spare and shift quickly and easily, as the play's panoramic quality requires. Costumes by Katherine Hampton Noland are vividly realized, and the lighting (Thomas Dunn) and sound and music (Jason Atkinson and Josh Farrar, respectively) help set the various violent moods effectively. Jeremy Robins has contributed some cool video effects that are used when old Yolande's ghost appears.
Mimi Cozzens is terrific as the old ghostly apparition and also as Margaret's ally Mary of Gelderland. Justin Adams is impressive as the young King Edward IV.
Her Majesty the King heralds a talent to watch in playwright Overman, and is, despite its weaknesses, a thoroughly engaging entertainment.