I was sitting at the bar in the Wales Millennium Centre, waiting to see Omidaze Productions’ all-female version of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, when two ladies accosted me and asked if I knew the play.
‘Well, it’s actually three plays’, I responded. ‘And it’s rather tricky in terms of authorship and chronology. I think that Shakespeare wrote Henry VI Part Two and Three as a two-part play for Pembroke’s Men in 1591, and that the Lord Strange’s Men put on the pretended first part the following year to take advantage of Shakespeare’s success with Elizabethan audiences. That script came into the possession of Shakespeare’s company, the Chamberlain’s Men, in 1594, and Shakespeare added a few scenes to fully integrate a play about Talbot with his plays on the Wars of the Roses, thus turning these previously unconnected texts into a serial, in the First Folio.’
Okay, so I didn’t explain it quite like that…but one of the reasons I was so excited to see this production was because I’ve been examining the authorship of the first part for years, and now assign the opening act to Thomas Nashe and the rest of the play to Thomas Kyd, with the exception of a few scenes added by Shakespeare, including the famous rose plucking scene. I was slightly disappointed to learn that the director had conflated all three plays, and that there would be no Talbot, Joan, or Cade. However, it was nice to hear Nashe’s thunderous opening line, ‘Hung be the heavens with black’, even if this scene was marred by some tautologies, and to witness Kyd’s rapid-fire stichomythic dialogue when Suffolk woos Margaret by proxy, although Kyd did write a few clunkers, such as ‘Tush, that’s a wooden thing’.
When I told one of the ladies that I was an attributionist she said, ‘Ooh, I didn’t know people actually did that’. And there we have it. The fact that Shakespeare was not sole-author of the play does not change the ways in which it is directed, or the ways in which audiences perceive it, and though I was disappointed that the production followed the standard protocol of conflating all three texts, there was nothing else to be disappointed by. This was an innovative production with a kick-ass female cast, superbly directed by Yvonne Murphy.
This was also a promenade performance, which could be exhausting at times, but the dark and dingy set, and the battalion of noises and harsh lighting assaulting one’s senses, made this a play like no other as the audience perambulated the precipice of the Millennium Centre. This was not conventional Shakespeare. This was fresh and audacious theatre, and perhaps the finest Shakespeare production I’ve seen performed in Wales. I was rather expecting a bloodbath, given that there are more deaths in these plays than your average Tarantino movie, but the use of colour symbolism, and the ways in which characters were reincarnated following their demises, was quite beautiful. I also enjoyed the history lessons scrawled on the walls as the audience filed in. Such little details converged to create a thoughtful adaptation.
The crown changes hands so many times (I shall resist providing a synopsis, which can be found, most helpfully, in this production’s program), and there are so many characters, that it is sometimes hard to keep up with these plays, but the abridged script was well done, and the focus on Henry showed that this character, who, on the page, can seem rather vacuous in comparison to the likes of York (played by the charismatic Sioned Jones) and Richard, is actually a great one to play. Hannah O’ Leary gave a tremendous performance as the young King, her delivery pitch perfect even as she did circus tricks (wonderfully choreographed by Paul Evans), which emphasized the character’s child-like nature, but also, as the play progressed, his precarious position as monarch. Suzanne Packer made for an absorbing Margaret, and managed to keep the role consistent, despite the fact that she is, like Cordella in Kyd’s version of the Lear myth, characterized as a chaste maiden in the first part, but a ‘she-wolf’ in Shakespeare’s second and third parts. Such incongruences were successfully fixed by the script edit and direction.
There were no weak links in the cast at all, and these ladies showed that even though casts were male only in Shakespeare’s day, an all-female cast can also work perfectly. Lizzie Winkler stole the show, playing one of Shakespeare’s most deliciously villainous characters, misshapen Dick. The scene in which Richard learns his father has been slain in battle was truly powerful, and the raw emotion that Winkler conveyed, as tears streamed down her cheeks, provided the most poignant moment of the play.
I urge people to see this five star performance, which will delight Shakespeare lovers and non-lovers alike. These plays are, of course, very political, which helped to complement the director’s message that there is inequality in the theatre industry, and that this needs to be addressed. The director and her cast have made quite a statement here, and like Henry Tudor on the eve of the Battle of Bosworth, have taken huge steps towards restoring some balance. I very much look forward to seeing future productions by this excellent company.