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FringeReview UK 2020

Low Down

Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian’s direct, with Grace Smart’s set – with the gallery solely used for music-making – an earth-tipped and chipboarded frontage to the Wanamaker stage gives way to a parquee floor, eggshell-painted portals and red chaise-long in the second half with CSI plastic across floor and frontage later still. And a central point for the insertion of the future. Ellie Wilson composes the score, Megan Cassidy’s head of wardrobe, with Giles Block text editor and Tess Dignan head of voice, Philip d’Orleans as fight director Pam Humpage head of wigs, Anna Watson candle consultant and Cleo Maynard technician.


In a way we’re seeing this shorn lamb to the slaughter quite authentically. Parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI were originally, cumbersomely entitled (this is the short version!) The Houses of York and Lancaster and The Tragedy of Richard Duke of York. Despite that, they were hugely popular and got printed. Part 1 once entitled The Tragedy of King Harry the Sixth was only written after, is stronger but wasn’t printed till the Folio.

So in this conflation of the two plays over 3 hours 20 minutes we’re given the essence of the conflict, consigning little matters like the loss of France offstage, letting all the court poisons out and the rebels’ brimstone in. Jack Cade’s rebellion is behind you, literally. Unleashed here they depict a tableau where the rebellion comes so close to winning through. Though brief and a little truncated the energy carries it as a highlight and marker for what we might just be in for.

So it’s a necessarily slow start with court intrigue brewing but this productions builds. One exception is the football-shorted court (red and white for the Houses) and a spondee-unison cry of ‘Eng-land!’ every time it’s mentioned. When someone invokes it and no-one answers, you know he or she is doomed. There’s two intervals and from the opening of the second you should be hooked by the gas-masked protester behind you.

Henry VI precedes the same season’s Richard III with the same cast and creatives, concluding the Wanamaker and Globe’s whole Richard-Henriad-Richard this year. Both productions read very like a plea for now.

Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian’s production cleverly calibrates the incipient comedy with curses, or something deeper reaching its flourishing in Richard III: the Wanamaker’s made a home for spookiness, invoking early-modern witchcraft. You see this curl into the end of this production.

There’s enormous vocal clarity here too, shrewd editing, and lithe storytelling. There’s no reference to arguments over whether Part 2 and 3 were Shakespeare’s apprenticeship dusting-down of others’ work, but some characterful elements are unmistakeable: the son lamenting over the father he’s killed and visa versa as Henry VI squats on his molehill and the hapless subjects grope around, indeed groping at the king as the vanished parent, child, comrade. It’s moments like these as Broadbent writhes on that patch of black earth that fix this production.

Grace Smart’s set – with the gallery solely used for music-making – an earth-tipped and chipboarded frontage to the Wanamaker stage subverts the opening: a parquee floor, eggshell-painted portals and red chaise-long in the second half with CSI plastic across floor and frontage later still. And a central point for the insertion of the future. Ellie Wilson composes the score, with haunting solo vocals and a memorable set of themes that make it this season’s most memorable. In particular an off-kilter folk-setting.

Steffan Donnelly’s French Margaret purrs rails and snaps not least at her hapless saintly husband, here not an intellectually challenged monarch but a natural monk. There’s a moment when Donnelly shudders tenderness to Bowers’ Suffolk, but has to let th Duke go into exile and find a lopped head. Donnelly’s rangy queen rears defiance and scorn in equal measure, but lamenting a dead son crumples into half his accustomed length.

Jonathan Broadbent plays Henry VI with an addled nobility, ever pondering and behind the curve, scorned openly by his increasingly confident spouse and having dismissed Gloucester his Protector (still in place when he’s married) slides into wishing he were a swain. Instantly he’s reminded he is one, in effect, as erstwhile subjects round him up for the new king.

John Lightbody’s Humphrey Duke of Gloucester mixes nobility with a count-to-ten rage that means he has to leave and shout off-stage. There’s plenty of indications in the text he does just this. It all adds to the knockabout theatricality Shakespeare injected into what were vaguely familiar but even then arcane arguments. As loyal Old Clifford and a George Duke of Clarence (who deserts Edward then his new for Warwick) he seems almost too regally convincing. But that’s before we meet Richard

He’s pricked on by Sarah Amankwah’s ringing Eleanor, someone who’d outmatch Margaret if she could but finds she might just have met her match. She later commands as a hasty lusty Edward setting in train events we’ll see with Richard III in choosing a hapless widow as his bride and shaming Warwick negotiating for the French king’s daughter, them too and his brothers.

This is where Philip Arditti’s Warwick, previously a staunch Yorkist, turns on Edward and deliciously sides with his old foe Margaret and enlists France’s help. The glittering little pas-de-deux he and she craft with their arms in shameless shows of false affection is ne of those details that makes both these productions drip with

Colin Hurley’s conniving but swiftly-weary York with quick asides and a dispatch that gives way to despair. Nina Bowers’ sinewy sexy Suffolk is all ambition and genuine desire, thwarted in scarlet and returning as a Percy-like Young Clifford full of vault and dispatch, then the noble and hopelessly cornered Elizabeth Gray, widow suing for her husband’s lands in a determined whisper, all stillness.

Matti Houghton’s Somerset is a politico’s part though as Prince Edward Houghton exudes a mix of juvenile braggadocio and child-like vulnerability.

Leaphia Darko’s Salisbury and Northumberland are parts made for true sick-hearted servants but as Rutland again set on by Margaret and butchered you realise the power of this work, pitching the killing of young teenagers in London streets into history. Prince Edward’s revenge killing seems now very like gang turf wars escalated. The whole tenor of this production re-inscribes the instability and edgy, contingent ending.

Sophie Russell’s Richard is with Margaret the character who’ll carry into Richard III. She sings and at that moment you see her launch her pitch. Heroic, funny, already pitching to be more savage and vengeful through accident of birth than any, it’s a performance on a promise and as we discover, Russell delivers.

There are inevitably more complete, more meticulous and fully-articulated Henriads, not least th Globe’s touring version of 2013. But this is the most effective condensation of the pith of the trilogy we’re likely to see. For a divided worn-down country, this raises a ragged standard.