Shakespeare's Henry VI

Tue 11th – Sat 15th December 2012

reviews

Josephine Mitchell

at 09:13 on 12th Dec 2012

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If you have ever been to see a History Play, you will know that they are often very long, very complicated, and have a huge number of characters. Now, imagine if you will, a production that combines three histories into one. The result: three times the number of characters, three times the narrative complexity, and three times the number of dramatic stage deaths. Luckily, you don’t need to imagine such a production because there is the opportunity to witness the frantic confusion that is Shakespeare’s Henry VI parts I, II and III at the Old Fire Station this week.

The director Alistair Nunn has hacked at the script sufficiently to squish Shakespeare’s three plays into one long night of political conflict. As the programme proudly informs us, the three plays have over 300 characters. Needless to say, each play has been heavily cut to facilitate the squeezing of three decades of English history into 3 hours onstage.

In short, it doesn’t work. The narrative is painfully ascetic, and moments of poignant emotional revelation are butchered to keep within the designated time allowance. Most of the actors shift roles so rapidly that they seem to struggle with any sense of clear characterisation and the scenes were so rushed it was hard to keep track of the death count. It also meant that Joan of Arc was introduced, glorified, and burnt in what felt like about eight minutes. To be honest, it felt more like a docu-drama called ‘A Short Introduction to 15th Century English politics’.

Yet, perhaps the most striking element of Alistair Nunn’s production was the decision to reverse the genders of all his characters. Okay, so the concept is clear. All male characters are played by females and vice versa. Seems pretty simple, and might even say something interesting about gender assumptions, right?

Unfortunately, it was all done quite clumsily. It was never really clear whether Quinn Bailey as Suffolk was portraying a female figure of authority, or pretending to be a man. This remained unclear for all the characters throughout the play. Although, I have to wonder why the genders were reversed at all. Presumably the idea is that by having a woman play a man, we challenge our perceptions of female and male. This is an interesting motif, but not one that works well with Henry VI, since Shakespeare’s play is already at work challenging those same perceptions. Joan of Arc, for example, represents an intensely powerful, and physically intimidating woman, who defeats the Dauphin Charles in single combat.

Therefore, despite an excellent performance by Robbie Nestor as the French saint, a male Joan of Arc completely undermines this idea.

So far, I admit this review has been overwhelming negative, and I could go on to complain about the way the staging was rearranged every 5 minutes. I could complain about the oddly anachronistic music that intermittently boomed out of the speakers about our heads, so that as Henry VI sit reflecting painfully on the death of his son, we can hear The Smiths droning on in the background (A loud violin solo does not add emotional depth to the acting - it just drowns it out).

However, I think I will use the remaining spcae to describe perhaps the most frustrating moments of the production - the tantalising instances of brilliance. Individuals shone despite the rushed script and musical overload to communicate their personal tragedy. Lindsey-Anne Bridges as Henry VI was very impressive, and as one of the few characters that survived through the three parts, showed an excellent character progression from young boy to disillusioned old man. Chloe Orrock in particular shone as Young Talbot and Richard of Gloucester. When the play succeeded it was in flashes of excellence, and the final scene between Bridges and Orrock was an emotional tour-de-force that left the audience wanting more.

It's a pity that the director chose to yoke three beautiful plays into one anarchic mess, rather than allowing his actors a chance to shine. In brief, if you fancy scrubbing up on the War of the Roses, in the manner of a documentary channel at 3 in the morning, then Henry VI is playing until Saturday at the Old Fire Station.

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Alexandra Sutton

at 10:28 on 12th Dec 2012

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The phrase 'mash up' in the context of theatre is one that always leaves me feeling somewhat suspicious. It belongs to over-excited drama students with a penchant for all black costumes and devised pieces, or to the cast of Glee. So, when presented with the Oxford Theatre Guild's Henry VI, a condensed version of the three part series complete with gender reversed roles and repeated use of the word "bold" in the advertising, I was nervous to say the least.

The production opens with a bare stage, save for several stone coloured boxes pushed together to form a tomb. A body wrapped in a red sheet is then carried out and laid on the boxes, and we are informed that it's the body of the late King Henry V. (The red sheet informs us that what we are seeing is New and Interesting). And so, the style is established, and I admit that it's not half bad. Though the reshuffling of the boxes to form tomb, gallows and throne occasionally feels like one has been condemned to witness an eternal game of Tetris, the simplicity of the staging invites the audience to focus on the qualities of the play that director Alistair Nunn is keen to explore. Henry VI is a play of political division and bloodshed, but importantly it features some incredibly complex characters, and Nunn certainly attempts to do them justice. The cast wear t shirts marked with their character's name, and coloured according to their faction. The device is unsubtle, but visually striking, and works particularly well in the ensemble scenes in which the Lords surround their King, directing us to the ever changing political loyalties.

The main conceit of the production is of course the gender reversal. A brave move, and one that sadly did not pay off. Henry VI, though dominated by men, features two strong female characters; the Machiavellian Margaret of Anjou, and Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc). Thus, their portrayal by men rendered the reversal slightly silly, especially in the case of Craig Finlay (Margaret of Anjou) whose performance is more reminiscent of panto dame than calculating femme fatale.

Shakespeare was clearly already exploring the roles of gender in the court, so I am unsure as why Nunn decides to spell it out for us in a creative decision that hampered much of the play. The gendering of the characters is, ironically, confused. Clenched fists and a tight jaw doth not a male character make. Quinn Bailey plays a variety of characters with much control, but all is negated by a swagger worthy of Lord Flash Heart. It's unnecessary.

Despite this, cast members manage to shine. Robbie Nestor's portrayal of Joan la Pucelle captures the fragility and strength of the woman without slipping into cliché, and though faced with a clumsily staged execution his final speech brings focus to him and his character. Equally, Lindsey-Anne Bridges' portrayal of Henry is sensitive, complex and sincere. Her role develops throughout the rushed play, without losing sight of the King's sensibilities. Zoë Wilgar and Chloe Orrock are outstanding, portraying father and son, and brothers Edward and Richard of York. Their scenes are the strongest in the production, each embracing the language and characterisation with ease, and delivering powerful performances to capture the imagination of the audience.

It’s a shame then that during Wilgar and Orrock's most emotional scene, Nunn decides to play a power ballad over their incredible performance, and Shakespeare's incredible language. I can't forgive this production its awful, awful soundtrack. During the coronation scene we have something that sounds suspiciously like Enya, before battle, The White Stripes, and woe is me, over a monologue by the Duke of Gloucester we have Joy Division's 'Atmsophere' Just because the title of the song is sort of relevant does not mean language and lyrics should compete to be heard. In one battle scene we have music that transports me to a generic Vietnam war film, in a another we have ceilidh melodies and suddenly we are in Game of Thrones. Horrendous.

This production needs the director to trust his actors. He has a strong team, but in this case directorial vision has negated the talent of both cast and playwright and the result is mash up most poorly mashed.

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