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RSC Stratford, review: Henry VI: Rebellion


Henry VI: Rebellion, RSC Stratford, to May 28.

Review by Charles Barker

You’ve got to feel sorry for poor Henry VI, one of our most unfortunate monarchs. He ascended the throne while still a babe in arms, as an adult he was surrounded by treacherous relatives wanting the kingdom for themselves, and his wife was a conniving cheat.

It didn’t help that he was a gentle, bookish soul - he founded Eton College, and maybe that’s where your sympathies evaporate - with an almost impossible act to follow, his dad Henry V.

It all had to end badly for junior, which makes for great drama.

The three parts of Henry VI are arguably among Shakespeare’s lesser- known plays, but then rarely will they have been given the kind of treatment director Owen Horsley gives this production, which is a version of Part 2.

In short, it’s terrific.

You don’t for a second miss Part 1. This stands alone very well. The scene is set quickly, and you’re straight into the action. As soon as poor Henry turns his back on his inner circle, with his new but uncomfortably flirtatious and over-demonstrative wife, the knives are out. It’s already going downhill for him, and he’s the only one who doesn’t realise that.

Don’t worry about the nearly three-hour running time. There are two intervals, and the time flies by, helped by some quite stunning dramatic moments.

The death of the Duchess of Gloucester is handled wonderfully well; the pirate scene in which Suffolk is beheaded is genuinely shocking and the choppy sea on the giant screen backdrop puts you right in the action. And there are the poignant closing moments: Henry laments that he would rather be a subject than a king, while a sinister close-up of his main rival the Duke of York on the big screen behind him, is a hint that poor Henry may get his wish before too long.

All the performances are excellent, but Mark Quartley is perfectly cast as Henry – a mass of uncertainties, too kindly for the vicious world he inhabits. And Minnie Gale is terrific as his two-timing wife Margaret who loses her marbles when she receives the severed head of her lover, Suffolk.

And in a nice touch, the professional actors are joined by recent drama school graduates, and members of the RSC’s Shakespeare Nation programme which gives people with little or no experience of theatre, a taste of performance. Also in the cast are talented youngsters from the theatre’s Next Generation Act scheme which gives young people from disadvantaged backgrounds a chance to explore a career in acting.

It’s a large cast, and it all works brilliantly well - highly appropriate for a play which features the voices of ordinary people.

Running alongside Henry VI: Rebellion, the RSC has Wars of the Roses, a version of Henry VI Part 3. After Rebellion, that’s something you’ll certainly want to see.

Tickets from: www.rsc.org.uk

Picture: Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC.

Don't miss our review of Wars of the Roses, the RSC's companion piece to Henry VI: Rebellion.