“Between the red rose and the white
A thousand souls to death and deadly night”
Of the three plays of The Wars of the Roses, Henry VI was my least favourite. Taking all of I Henry VI and about half of 2 Henry VI, Trevor Nunn’s production takes an awful long time to really get going, largely hamstrung by one of Shakespeare’s weaker plots. Henry V has died, Henry VI isn’t proving to be much cop and so trouble starts brewing in the rival camps that emerges, the Houses of Lancaster and York. But they brew slowly and for a long time as there’s all sorts of business to deal with in France, including Joan of Arc.
And that business just isn’t that entertaining here, despite Imogen Daines’ committed work as the Maid of Orléans. The importance of the loss of French territory is never keenly felt and though the build-up to the collapse of English political order instinctively registers more significantly, it never feels more than a prelude as we know there is so much more to come (about seven hours). For me, Alex Waldmann’s petulant Henry VI was a disappointment, leaving no real mark on the role amidst a bunch of angry bearded white men shouting a lot.
Things look up markedly once we move into the 2 Henry VI territory. There’s sexual intrigue – Michael Xavier’s seductive Suffolk (for a man much better known as a musical theatre actor, he’s very good indeed) wangling Joely Richardson’s girlish Margaret of Anjou into wedded (not-so-much) bliss with Henry but also wangling himself into her bed. There’s magical intrigue – Alexandra Gilbreath’s Eleanor of Gloucester livening up the tail end of the play with her necromancing nefariousness. And finally some real emotion, as death hits close to home for the anguished monarch.
It’s a long time coming though and it’s all rather worthy – if you’re in for the long haul, stick with it for it does get better.