Henry VI Part III
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 3, 2010
I'd never actually seen Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3 (or Parts 1 or 2, for that matter); these early histories are not all that highly regarded nowadays, and when done they are typically condensed, as Edward Hall did in Rose Rage and Ralph Carhart did in Queen Margaret, both highly successful adaptations that focused on the War of the Roses story and included bits of Richard III along with parts of the Henrys.
So Wide Eyed Productions' mounting of an unadulterated Henry VI, Part 3 is something of an event for theatre history buffs and Bardophiles. It's directed by Adam Marple, who proclaims in a long note in the program his desire to more or less rehabilitate the piece. It has a bad rep, he says, as the work of a very young William Shakespeare "trying to find his way to his style." Marple thinks differently: he's out to prove here that this is "one of the last in a great tradition of Mystery/Morality plays." He failed to convince me with this production, but there is still much that is of interest in this revival, even if oftentimes the play's repetitions and convolutions make us long for more directorial focus (and scissors) than Marple chooses to provide.
The play tells the story of the War of the Roses, or at least Shakespeare's bowdlerized version of it. This conflict, which plagued England for about three decades before Henry Tudor decisively defeated Richard III at Bosworth Field, was a terrible family feud wrought national as a civil war. Edward III, last of the great Plantagenet kings, died in 1377, outliving his revered son Edward the Black Prince. The Black Prince's son, a 10-year-old boy, succeeded Edward as Richard II. Richard was a weak king and his cousin Henry, another of Edward's grandsons, usurped the throne in 1399. Henry's son Henry V was a great warrior and conquered much of France during his brief reign, and so was popular with his subjects. But Henry V's son, Henry VI, who was but nine months old when crowned king, oversaw the loss of all of England's French territory and other calamities as well (even though most of this wasn't his fault, since he was just a boy). By the 1460s, when Henry VI, Part 3 begins, dissent in the land was being fermented by the Yorks, descendents of the usurped Richard II. Led first by Richard of York and then by his son Edward (who became Edward IV), the Yorks rebelled against the Lancasters. That rebellion, or feud, became the War of the Roses.
It's complicated history, and Shakespeare assumes his audience knows most of it, which may make the way into Henry VI, Part 3 rough going for many. As the play opens, Richard of York arrives at the court of Henry VI with his three sons—Edward, George, and Richard, all of whom will be familiar to you if you know the much more famous Richard III. They fire the opening volley of the war, and the Yorks and Lancasters and their respective supporters are off! The play alternates between scenes on the battlefield (with an enormous body count) and scenes of palace intrigue or, occasionally, introspection on the part of the title character, here depicted as a reluctant, weak-willed monarch who refuses to either yield or fight.
The play abounds with colorful characters: Richard of York's hunchback son Richard, of course, is the star villain, but there's also another York son, George (who becomes Duke of Clarence), whose vacillation in support of his house's cause is intriguing; Queen Margaret, Henry's wife, who is willing to take to the battlefield when her husband will not; King Lewis of France, who is completely happy to play the feuding English royals against each other for his own benefit; and the Earl of Warwick, to my mind the most interesting personage in Shakespeare's story, who either betrays or is betrayed by his ruler in the play's most engaging (and ultimately tragic) twist.
Marple employs a large cast of mostly young actors (the sameness of age among them is in fact sometimes confusing). Nat Cassidy gives us a pensive and surprisingly good-humored Henry that makes us interested in what he might do with Richard II. R. Paul Hamilton is delightful as wily King Lewis. Justin R.G. Holcomb gives Warwick dimension and interest. Other performances, like Ben Newman's Richard and Candace Thompson's Margaret, are less cerebral. (Marple has given Newman a star's finish in the play, appending something from Richard III, which did not feel like it served Marple's own thesis.)
Jerrod Bogard plays all of the story's various messengers and stays on stage for much of the show as an observer: the concept underlying his character doesn't finally feel consistently applied, however, when he disappears for a long stretch near the end of the play, no longer available to bear witness to some pivotal events.
The play is long, and the action scenes don't feel exciting enough to counteract that fact. I found myself wanting more stage blood (Marple uses none except in one small but noticeable place in the production) and more thrillingly choreographed swordfights.
Prepare yourself by boning up on the back story, and there will be stuff to engage you in this production of a rarely-seen Shakespeare play. Read Marple's program note and see if you think he makes his case. I think you will find, Marple's concept notwithstanding, that many of the theatrical gambits and themes that Shakespeare developed later in his career are clearly visible in this early play, which for me is the most interesting aspect of Henry VI, Part 3.