English Shakespeare Company
at the Auditorium Theatre

An ineffectual, religious-minded ruler and his ruthlessly ambitious, policy-setting wife; top aides vying with one another for dominance; ousted insiders plotting revenge; a political wife consulting occult sources for guidance. No, it’s not the TV miniseries of Don Regan’s For the Record; it’s William Shakespeare’s maxi-saga Henry VI, as presented by the English Shakespeare Company as part of its 24-hour Wars of the Roses cycle, which is having its American premiere at the Auditorium Theatre in the International Theatre Festival of Chicago.

And a cracking good show it is, this Henry VI. Though the big draws in the Roses cycle (seven plays presented in repertory) are, understandably, Henry V and Richard III (the best-known to American audiences, thanks to Laurence Olivier’s hammy film versions), it is in the Henry VI plays—among Shakespeare’s earliest works—that the English Shakespeare Company’s monumental achievement most gloriously reveals itself.

What the ESC, under the artistic leadership of stage director Michael Bogdanov and principal actor Michael Pennington, brings to its work is a rare combination of technique, passion, clarity, and commitment. We revel in these qualities in the troupe’s performances of more familiar material—the famous soliloquies and set pieces that dot Richard II, Henry V, Richard III, and the two parts of Henry IV—but somehow we take them for granted, too, even when the line readings are unorthodox, as many are. Of course that poetry sings; that’s Shakespeare at his best.

The three-part Henry VI is not Shakespeare at his best. Much of it isn’t Shakespeare at all, in fact; these early plays, written during the Bard’s apprenticeship, are a hodgepodge of authorial influences. (Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nash are believed to have been contributors.) And ESC director Bogdanov freely admits to having “cobbled” some of the text himself—”Bogspeare,” he calls it—in addition to having severely edited it. The three plays are now two—Henry VI: House of Lancaster and Henry VI: House of York—trimmed for dramatic clarity and, most important, to highlight the themes and historical concerns that run through the whole seven-play cycle.

Some festival publicity refers to The Wars of the Roses as a collection of Shakespeare’s “history plays,” but that’s inaccurate; Henry IV and Henry V are histories, but Richard II and Richard III are called tragedies. So, originally, was the last part of Henry VI: its earlier title was The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry VI. The difference is significant; while in his treatment of the rise of slumming Prince Hal to the magisterial Henry V Shakespeare was interested in dramatizing English history, the tragedies are preoccupied with moral conflict, the philosophical implications of generations of civil war.

A summing-up is in order. In Richard II we see King Richard of the House of Lancaster deposed by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, who crowns himself Henry IV. This usurpation, it is prophesied, will lead to years of bloodshed and sorrow in England. Henry IV, parts one and two, show Henry and his son Prince Hal fending off foreign enemies and domestic rebellions. Henry IV dies and is succeeded by Hal, who, as Henry V, leads a successful war against France to take his countrymen’s minds off their problems at home. The two-part ESC adaptation of the Henry VI plays begins after Henry V’s death, with the lords of church and state bickering over the king’s coffin about who should run the country; there follows a tale of mounting horrors—murders, treacheries, and deliberate cruelty—that comes to resemble a Jacobean revenge tragedy, leading finally to the unseating of the Lancastrian Henry VI by the rival House of York, headed by Edward IV. The cycle closes with Richard III, in which Edward’s malignant brother Richard rises briefly to the throne over the bodies of his brothers, their wives, and his nephews. He is killed in turn by Henry Tudor, who ends the infighting by marrying Edward IV’s daughter, thus uniting York and Lancaster and beginning the Tudor dynasty.

These are strong events, and Shakespeare (drawing from the writings of Raphael Holinshed, Edward Hall, Sir Thomas More, and others) has peopled his plays with strong characters to react to them. The ESC Wars of the Roses has already gained a reputation for its politicized point of view—its emphasis on the plays as sociopolitical criticism, its underlining of contemporary parallels through various devices. One device is the use of modern dress: costume designer Stephanie Howard and director Bogdanov have devised a scheme in which the noble (in social position, that is) characters wear formal garb proceeding in linear fashion from the Victorian era through World War I, the 1930s, and right on up to the present (Richard III wears a dark striped business suit that makes him look like both a gangster and a corporate president); the common folk’s costumes are more freewheeling, ranging from medieval garb to leather jackets and punky chains. There are also numerous modern touches in the sets and props: crudely painted banners proclaiming “Fuck the Frogs” on the eve of a French invasion, for instance, or copies of the Standard newspaper with the headline “King Dead”; Richard III wields a switchblade and uses a personal computer, sword fights become shootouts, and so on. Most of this is refreshing without being intrusive, though the end of Richard III—in which a slow-motion battle in full armor is followed by a television newscast—is gimmicky at the expense of the poetry. Richard’s final speech—”A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse . . . “—is annoyingly indecipherable, delivered from offstage while the actor is being suited up in his armor. (The video monitor idea was used more wittily in Robert Falls’s 1984 Hamlet at Wisdom Bridge.)

But what makes The Wars of the Roses such a riveting experience is the characterizations—and that means the acting. This is stark Shakespeare, with a minimum of spectacle; the performers are at the center of this production at all times, performing with unflagging connection to their roles and their text. In these plays, language is more than a tool; the plays are about language—its capacity to heal and hurt, illuminate and deceive, create and destroy—which is why even inventive productions of Shakespeare fail if the actors aren’t up to the demands of the poetry. These actors are; among many other things, The Wars of the Roses is a celebration of great voices filling a great theater (the Auditorium never had it so good). The ESC is a true ensemble; there are no “extras” or spear-carriers; everyone onstage in a given scene has a purpose on that stage that makes the scene clearer and more real.

Certain actors clearly have senior status in getting the meatiest roles: Company codirector Michael Pennington, having played a poetic Richard II and a shrewd Henry V, becomes rambunctious rebel leader Jack Cade in Henry VI: . . . York, then a tense corporate assassin in Richard III; bald and ballsy Andrew Jarvis, a raging French Dauphin in Henry V and Henry VI, stuns the audience with his feral, self-questioning, “wickedly great” Richard III, the inevitably amoral product of decades of civil war; John Castle, a forceful Bolingbroke in Richard II and a slyly scary Pistol in Henry IV, reaches true tragic heights as the Duke of York in Henry VI: . . . York, forced to wipe his face with a handkerchief dipped in his dead son’s blood. Other actors, generally cast (but hardly confined) in smaller roles, suddenly emerge as major presences. Mary Rutherford is a charming Joan of Arc in Henry VI: . . . Lancaster, startled by her own supernatural guidance as she bests the Dauphin in swordplay. The tight-lipped June Watson is astonishing in her single-minded vindictiveness as the autocratic Queen Margaret, whose refusal to acquiesce in her husband King Henry VI’s dethronement leads her through a procession of atrocities committed by and eventually against her. And watching the slim, balding, intensely blue-eyed Paul Brennen’s transformation as Henry VI from boyish eagerness to despairing disillusion embodies the enthralling tale these plays tell—of power lusted for and lost, of the struggle to preserve kingship as a moral force in an immoral world. v