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The death of Kings


The Guardian, 15th March 2008, Michael Billington


As the RSC’s complete cycle of history plays heads to London, we asked Shakespearean scholars, actors and directors to tell us which of the histories is the most important to them and why their portrayal of the past remains so powerful today. The entire article is at http://arts.guardian.co.uk/theatre/drama.



Henry VI, Part III

Michael Pennington


The three Henry VIs, traditionally the poor relations among Shakespeare’s histories, could end up having the most to say. We hear familiar music in Part III, particularly. The verse pounds and grinds and splutters, exposing the dark heart of civil war, there’s little relief and the sourest humour, but also a peculiar Shakespearean buoyancy that makes a great night out of it.


The whole history cycle always works best as a sequence played by the same team of actors. The question has always been what to do about these uneven Henry VIs. For their seven-play Wars of the Roses in the 1960s, the RSC condensed the three of them into two, and so did we at the English Shakespeare Company in the 1980s, touring our marathon worldwide, something never done before or since. If we took the honours for time and motion – seven plays in 48 hours – the RSC now does for facing down any lingering doubts about the Henry VIs and doing the lot as part of a 72-hour cycle.


Not that there’s ever much doubt about the galvanic energies of Part III. The play starts with Richard of Gloucester throwing a decapitated head on the floor of parliament. Then three suns briefly appear in the sky to symbolise his and his brothers’ rise. Gloucester is just one of the tremendous figures looming out of the fog of war. Queen Margaret, one of Shakespeare’s biggest hitters, stands Gloucester’s father on a molehill on the battlefield and taunts him with a paper crown and a napkin dipped in his son’s blood. You can almost see his tears in close-up mingling with the blood, like soiled laundry under a tap; Shakespeare has suddenly leapt beyond his contemporaries by registering not only the corrupt heroics of this, but its intimate detail. Then Gloucester, the ‘grumbling crookback prodigy’ with ‘neither pity, love, nor fear’, begins to emerge as Richard III. Meanwhile, on another molehill, in a wonderful piece of stylisation, the pious King Henry – a political vacuum at the centre of the conflict – is joined by two accidental casualties of self-destructive violence, a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son, for a three-part lament on all insane factionalism. We realise that what seemed to be a celebration of the energies of war was really a deep and sustained Shakespearean protest.


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