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The Wars of The Roses: Henry VI

This production of Henry VI forms part of Northern Broadsides’ Wars of The Roses trilogy, being performed this week at the Lowry...

Published on May 5th 2006.

The Wars of The Roses: Henry VI

Adapted and Directed byBarrie Rutter

For some reason, I was under the impression that I was seeing Henry IV, a play with which I am quite familiar. After ten confusing minutes I realised that I wasn’t watching Henry IV at all, but Henry VI, a play with which I am not in the least familiar. An easy mistake to make, I feel.

Whether I was familiar with the play or not however, really didn’t matter. Obviously my having a good grasp of this period in English history helped (although we all know that Shakespeare was somewhat flexible with historical truth), but this production was so lucid and perfectly staged that it was very easy for fresh ears and eyes to follow, and the actors actually sounded as though they understood the words that were coming out of their mouths, which in turn made the Shakespearian language so much more accessible for the audience.

This production of Henry VI forms part of Northern Broadsides’ Wars of The Roses trilogy, being performed this week at the Lowry. Artistic Director Barrie Rutter has adapted the plays of Shakespeare, condensing the three Henry VI plays into two parts – Henry VI and Edward IV, with Richard III completing the trilogy. All three plays will be performed consecutively on Saturday 6th May.

This production is played out against Jessica Worrall’s stark war torn set, made up of two derelict buildings of concrete and scaffold, suggestive of destruction and reconstruction simultaneously. The backdrop is simple, being crudely painted in brown and black, and the costumes are equally dark and simplistic. The two main components in this play seem to be the language (understandably), and the music, the beauty and liveliness of each contrasting perfectly with the cold starkness of the modest set and costumes.

Music plays an integral part in Northern Broadside’s no frills approach to Shakespeare, and this play is no exception. Opening to a rousing chorus and mini orchestra, a band is present at all times throughout the play, adding depth and context to many scenes and playing a key function in the battle scenes – notably in the conflict between Joan of Arc and English hero Talbot which is reduced to a symbolic dance and drum beat. Surprisingly, despite the prancing Joan of Arc bringing to mind Peter Pan rather than a great warrior, this scene actually works very well.

The performances are spotless, with Andrew Whitehead doing full justice to the challenging role of King Henry. While early on in the play his childlike vulnerability threatens to become slightly trying, it never does cross the line, with Whitehead maintaining a balance between earnest childishness and mature sensibility as the character develops from strength to strength to become the tragic King Harry.

Other notable performances come from Maeve Larkin in the role of Joan of Arc, Director Barrie Rutter as the Machiavellian Richard of York, and Dicken Ashworth as Gloucester. But really, every performance was faultless.

This was the best Shakespeare I have seen. Tonight I will be seeing Richard III, and if this first part of the trilogy was anything to go by, I can't wait.

Jayne Robinson
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The Lowry, Manchester
Until Saturday 6th May 2006
Box Office 0870 787 5790 or book online at www.thelowry.com

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