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The Fall of King Henry (aka Henry VI, Part 3)

No Bed of Roses

American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Virginia
Thursday, September 21, 2017, C–8&9 (front middle stalls)
Co-directed by Jim Warren and Jenny Bennett

The characters are arranged in a diamond, all dressed in renaissance costumes, the king in red cloak and jewelled crown at the front with his hands crossed, York to the left with blue patterned jacked, gold trim and lace collar, Richard to the right in red and black armor, Magarat above in a gold dress and crown matching Henry'sA promotional image, a la Queen, for American Shakespeare Center's production of Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3, featuring, clockwise from the bottom, Henry (Chris Johnton), York (Christopher Seiler), Margaret (Allison Glenzer), and Richard (René Thornton Jr.). Photo by Michael Bailey, American Shakespeare Center.

William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3, prominently features a queen. So, of course, the cast in the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) production was destined to play a song by the rock band Queen in its preshow music. Two songs, actually: “We Will Rock You” interlaced with “Another One Bites the Dust.” The latter song is thematically apt to the play, in which a lot of people bite the dust. The other song better fits this production, which kicks its can all over the place.

I am not belittling the play, heavens no. This early work of Shakespeare’s is an overlooked masterpiece. The playwright uses a napkin to spark one of the most dramatic scenes in the history of show biz, and he develops not one but two of his canon’s all-time greatest characters: the protofeminist Queen Margaret, “she-wolf of France,” and the prototype villain, “Dickie” Richard of Gloucester, hereafter (in the sequel to this play) Richard III. This production at the ASC's Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, gives these two characters their due, and other individual and collective performances rise to the level of resonation, too, the most haunting being a single unnamed father in a passage of less than 30 lines. This presentation’s chief quality, however, is how it rides the text like a bucking bronco, a near-constant state of caffeine-fueled energy and dialed-up volume. So many characters coming and going—40-plus played by 12 professional actors and one Mary Baldwin University Acting Intern (David F. Meldman)—that even the actors themselves get confused who is who. On the night we attended, one actor referring to the three York sons, Edward, Clarence, and Richard, misnamed the middle son as Clifford, the stout Lancastrian who bit the dust several scenes before.

When the play does slow down, it slows waaaay down waaaay too much. As Queen Margaret rallies the Lancastrian lords for the climactic Battle of Tewkesbury, the Yorkists emerge lined up across the back of the stage, an ominous effect brought about without benefit of artificial lighting. But then they fight in slow motion, a staging cliché that stanches the drama and belies the company's skills in stage combat.

Dangerous purity is part and parcel of productions at the Blackfriars Playhouse, the world’s only replica of Shakespeare’s indoor theater, which uses Shakespeare’s original staging conditions: universal lighting, audience in close proximity (even sitting on “gallant stools” on stage), and nothing digital (effects are created by the actors backstage, and all the music is acoustic). The only notable production quality is the costumes (true to Shakespeare's original practices) with authentic-looking renaissance suits, cloaks, and gowns designed by Jenny McNee. In such staging conditions, Shakespeare’s native genius shines through, and does so in this play.

A key thematic arc running through the play is the nature of oaths. Many are sworn; almost all are broken, twisted, or forgotten. An oath stands only as long as convenience dictates, and shifting ambition in the face of hard lobbying by other self-interested lords is enough to sweep a sworn oath away. An exception in the First Folio text is Clarence (Tim Sailer), whose own ambition bolstered by political calculation prompts him to leave his brother, the newly crowned and ever-lusting Edward IV (Benjamin Reed), who has decided to wed Elizabeth Grey (Allie Babich) though he’s already sent Warwick on a marriage embassy to the sister of France's king. After the blindsided Warwick (Josh Innerst) also switches to the Lancastrians, Clarence marries his daughter. However, as battle lines form outside Coventry between Lancastrian and York forces, Clarence switches back. “Father of Warwick, know you what this means?” he says as he approaches with his army. He removes the red rose badge he’s wearing as he proclaims, “I will not ruinate my father’s house … Perhaps thou wilt object my holy oath: to keep that oath were more impiety than Jephthah’s when he sacrificed his daughter.” Yep, cite the Bible for your political expediency. The First Folio version portrays no outside pressure for Clarence’s turnaround: it seems a true choice of conscience. But this staging turns to the First Octovo edition (1595) of the play in which Clarence's younger brother Richard (René Thornton Jr.) hobbles forward and whispers in Clarence’s ear.

A time-hopping play peopled with dozens of historical players, Henry VI, Part 3's characters already tend to be dimensionally flat. Shakespeare at this early stage in his career relied mostly on richly poetic bombast for dramatic effect. Nevertheless, individual performances in this production make the most of these conditions. On the Lancaster’s side, Greg Brostrom plays Clifford as an unrelenting bully of a man, Vladimir Putin overdosing on steroids. Among the Yorks, Reed gives Edward a casually impetuous spirit as he pinballs through constantly changing circumstances: now an heir, now on the run, now a king, now a prisoner, now a king again, now betrothed to a princess, now married to a commoner while betrothed to a princess.

The Earl of Warwick runs both ways, historically the "Kingmaker" who, in turn, put Edward and Henry on the throne. Innerst, an actor of great depth and nuance, embraces Warwick’s two-dimensional construction as the true essence of a man so myopically dogmatic about honor he can’t see the contradictions in his own behavior. When Warwick is on his marriage embassy for Edward at the court of France’s King Lewis XI (Brostom), interrupting Margaret's own plea for France's assistance to Henry's cause, they all learn of Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth Grey. "King Lewis, I here protest, in sight of heaven," Warwick says,

That I am clear from this misdeed of Edward's,
No more my king, for he dishonors me,
But most himself, if he could see his shame.
Did I forget that by the house of York
My father came untimely to his death?
Did I let pass the abuse done to my niece?
Did I impale him with the regal crown?
Did I put Henry from his native right?
And am I guerdon'd at the last with shame?
Shame on himself! For my desert is honor:
And to repair my honor lost for him,
I here renounce him and return to Henry.
My noble queen, let former grudges pass,
And henceforth I am thy true servitor.

Innerst's delivery reveals the cloak of honor that Warwick wears to be ridiculously flimsy, and the last couplet, as he bows to Margaret, lands one of the production's biggest laughs, given the violent bile of those "former grudges."

The dimensional attributes of Richard as a character are of his own creating. His penchant for directly addressing the audience with soliloquies and asides first appears in this play and will become the character's hallmark in his eponymous play that completes this tetralogy. “Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile, and cry ‘Content’ to that which grieves my heart, and wet my cheeks with artificial tears, and frame my face to all occasions,” he says in his key soliloquy at the end of Act III, Scene 2, when he frankly tells the audience that he aims for the crown, pointing out markers on his way and obstacles in his way. Thornton, a veteran Blackfriars presence, who, with this production, completes Shakespeare's canon as an actor, uses this speech as director's notes for the whole of his performance.

However, he also dives into other moments to shine a light on the man's psychosis. In persuading his father, the Duke of York (Christopher Seiler), to angle more fervently for the throne, Richard says, “Father, do but think how sweet a thing it is to wear a crown, within whose circuit is Elysium, and all that poets feign of bliss and joy.” Thornton’s Richard is lost in reverie speaking of this Elysium as he leans his head against his father’s high-back chair.

We glimpse another truism of Richard’s existence when Edward bestows the dukedoms of Clarence on George and Gloucester on Richard. “Let me be Duke of Clarence, George of Gloucester," Thornton’s Richard says with a rare instance of petulance, "for Gloucester's dukedom is too ominous.” In this brief interchange we see that Richard, “the crookback” with the crippled hand and listless leg, could have been a pampered and overly protected son given his status of nobility. Instead, he is a fighting machine, Thornton in red and black leather armor including plates accordioned over his curving spine, a polio brace on his left leg, and a shield welded to his crutch (which he uses as a weapon along with his ever-present sword). Richard doesn’t further press his complaint about the Gloucester title, but this bit of comical interlude also serves as a lesson for him. When next he objects to a decree from his oldest brother—marrying Elizabeth—Richard remains publicly silent while Clarence storms out of the court. Richard concurs with Clarence, but as his aim is much higher than a powerful dukedom, his silence earns him the trust of his older brother, the king, and cushions him from Elizabeth's faction in the next play. Besides, his objection to Edward’s marriage to Elizabeth is not so much for the diplomatic blunder it proves to be but for the probability that the union will lead to more princes cutting into his line of succession to the crown.

As Shakespeare further develops the character of Richard, his portrayal of Margaret—the only character to appear in four Shakespeare plays and the only person in Henry VI, Part 1, to make it through Richard III alive—reaches her apex in this play. Shakespeare created a woman who is a monster and hero in equal measures; but the most powerful ingredient in that recipe is the first word: woman. The men want her to be their vision of womanhood. Her husband, King Henry (Chris Johnston), even calls her “sweet Margaret” when at most she's bittersweet. The Yorkists use the fact that she is a woman (a French one at that) not behaving like a woman as fodder for their insults. But the Lancastrians are inspired by her—"I would your highness would depart the field: The queen hath best success when you are absent," Clifford says—and even Warwick begrudgingly admits her generalship is strong.

Richard dressed in red and black leather over chain mail armor, a single cructh with a small shield on his left hand, his sword in his right hand pointed down to the floor, his head tilted forward from the armored hump in his back
Richard of Gloucester (René Thornton Jr.) is a fighting machine in ASC's production of William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3, as he launches his plot for the throne. Photo by Michael Bailey, American Shakespeare Center.

Margaret acknowledges her place in society as a woman when she belittles Henry for allowing himself to be "enforced" to relinquish inheritance of the crown to the Yorks: "Had I been there, which am a silly woman, the soldiers should have toss'd me on their pikes before I would have granted to that act." Silly woman, my ass: Allison Glenzer's Margaret draws her strength from her double dose of X chromosomes. She first appears in this play (Shakespeare deliberately forestalling her entrance to build anticipation) when she steams on stage as a ticked-off dragon confronting her lamb of a husband for disinheriting their son. In her final scene, in the wake of the three York brothers slaying her son, she pleads with Clarence to kill her, using biting cynicism after he insists he swore he wouldn't—"thou usest to forswear thyself: 'Twas sin before, but now 'tis charity." From first to last, Glenzer's Margaret is a force of nature: a hurricane, most precisely.

Her tour de force moment is Shakespeare’s own tour de force moment, when she bates the captured Duke of York, wearing a paper crown and placed on a mole hill, with a napkin steeped in the blood of his youngest son, Rutland (Shuntè Lofton), whom Clifford had just brutally killed. So unrelentingly vicious does Glenzer present Margaret in this scene, Brostrom’s Clifford watches astonished, and a bit scared, too. In York’s response, Seiler first takes on a cynical tone, ridiculing her lineage as the impoverished daughter of a king in title but no entitlement. This goading clearly gnaws at her. York moves on to ridiculing her as a woman, including the line that inspired the first-ever reference to Shakespeare as a playwright (in Robert Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit in 1592): "O tiger's heart wrapt in a woman's hide!" She grins: York unwittingly has wandered onto her psychological turf. His thoughts then turn to Rutland, and as Seiler begins weeping, Glenzer’s Margaret burns with an intense glow of sadistic contentment. In this scene, a lifetime of psycho-emotional experience crosses Glenzer’s face.

Shakespeare makes dramatic mountains out of molehills in this play, for in the next battle, Henry sits down on a molehill to soliloquize about the toils of kingship, wishing she were dead or "no better than a homely swain." Johnston sits at the edge of the stage, talking gently and directly to individual members of the audience. He played Henry in Part 2 last year as a monarch overwhelmed by the rule of the realm and the misrule of his lords, but though Henry's self-interests come to the fore in Part 3, be it his divine right to rule, his desire to die, or his devotion to religious devotion, Johnston plays him as unrelentingly docile, his moments on stage interjecting quietude amid the rest of this production's din. Only in his final scene does Johnston's Henry put aside grace when, knowing Richard's intent, he uses a snarky tone as he goads Gloucester into killing him.

During Henry’s molehill meditation, two men drag bodies onto either side of the stage. One (played by Lofton) discovers the man he has just killed to be his father; the other (David Anthony Lewis) discovers the man he has just killed to be his son. Watching them, Henry cries, "O, that my death would stay these ruthful deeds!" (irony alert; it doesn't). However, it is Lewis who brings home civil war's terrible tragedy when he lets lose a heart-rending moan that shivers the chandeliers above and then speaks in baby talk as he folds his son in his arms. It is the production’s most powerful performance, reminding us how the nation’s factious leaders use soldiers and citizens—described as their “friends” whom they muster for war—to kill and die in a shifting landscape of allegiances and broken oaths. And what do these commoners get for it?

The last word on that (in this production, though not in the play itself) belongs to Richard. After Reed's King Edward announces, "Farewell, sour annoy! For here, I hope, begins our lasting joy," to end Shakespeare's play, this ASC production tacks on a preview of the next chapter in the story as Thornton's Richard of Gloucester turns to the audience with a glint in his eye and announces, "Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York; and all the clouds that lour'd upon our house in the deep bosom of the ocean buried."

We'll see about that. Next year.

Eric Minton
September 26, 2017

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