“Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile”
Director and adaptor Phil Willmott has made something of a point of mixing things up when it comes to Shakespeare at the Union. He’s revived the rarely seen King John, unearthed the controversial Double Falsehood, cast a female Lear and there’s no exception with Play of Thrones. Taking George R R Martin’s inspiration of The Wars of the Roses as a starting point, Willmott has fashioned a free adaptation of the three Henry VI plays, using Part Three as the spine for a story of epic sweep of warring kings, bloody betrayals and fierce ambition that wouldn’t be out of place in Westeros.
So we see the Houses of Lancaster and York tussle again for England’s crown as the kingdom is fatally destabilised by the death of Henry V and the accession of his infant son, Henry VI. The rival dynasties scheme away making politically advantageous marriages, starting surreptitious strategic affairs, setting up any number of brutal murders, even invoking otherworldly spirits to ensure that they win the game. So far so Song of Ice and Fire and there is fun to be had in spotting familiar character traits – Ygritte’s warrior spirit, Cersei’s cold manipulations, Joffrey’s immature obnoxiousness, Tyrion’s tactical nous.
But it’s best not to get too hung up on the Game of Thrones connection as they are their own beasts (plus there are no dragons, or White Walkers here) and the only heaving bosom in sight belongs to the Duke of Suffolk’s pecs (Gavin Kerr, in fine form). His sly machinations are a highlight of a first half that has to introduce a voiceover to clarify some of the historical complexity but this awkwardness slips away after the interval as Michael Keane’s truly disturbing soon-to-be Richard III slinks into view with all the instruments of torture needed to clamber his way to the top of the pile.
A nifty bit of text modification promotes the royal claim of Penelope Day’s Duchess of York and allows for a fearsome rivalry with Emma Kelly’s brilliantly ruthless Margaret of Anjou (wife to Henry VI, lover to Suffolk) and Abigail Carter-Simpson’s Joan La Pucelle completes an impressive (particularly for Shakespeare) set of female characters. And some bracing honesty from Willmott in the programme notes explains a cost-saving approach to design, the simplicity of which opens out the first half and becomes noisily effective in the battle-strewn second.
The heavy lifting thus falls on the shoulders of Jason Meininger’s lighting and James Nicholson’s sound to effectively conjure the intensity of court, the intimacy of courting and the interest in courtside action as fight follows fight. It may not always be subtle but there’s a rawness to the energy that the company responds to in the force of their performances. Perhaps not one for Shakespearean purists but an imaginative take on making Shakespeare more accessible.