The Globe and Mail's review:
More duty than delight
By KATE TAYLOR
Monday, June 3, 2002 – Print Edition, Page R4
If Stratford is going to whisk us from the comedy and kingship of Henry IV and Henry V, performed last season, to the tragic villainy of Richard III, which will open in July, we are going to have to make a pit stop at Henry VI -- at least if we want to do our British history in chronological order.
Shakespeare did not write his histories in that order, however: The three parts of Henry VI are believed to be his first plays. They were very popular in his day, but are now seldom performed. They are lengthy, stuffed with minor characters, full of obscure classical references and lack any central figure as compelling as the wayward Hal or hunchbacked Richard.
When Stratford has staged them previously -- in 1966 and 1980 -- they were abridged. This time around, veteran British director Leon Rubin has again done a major editing job, cutting minor characters and dividing the trilogy into two parts, which the festival is billing as Revenge in France and Revolt in England.
In what is otherwise a smooth and seamless editing of text, we begin with a rather awkwardly updated speech: In the role of the chorus, Seana McKenna appears on the great catwalk constructed by designer John Pennoyer on the Tom Patterson stage to remind us of last summer's action in Henry V in which the English king won the field at Agincourt.
From there, it's off to France, where the English are now losing to a French army newly emboldened by the arrival of the woman known here as Joan la Pucelle. Led by Michelle Giroux's swaggering and bossy Joan of Arc, the French win a few and then the English win a few in a tedious series of battlefield reverses. Back in a divided England, Michael Therriault's version of the young King Henry VI, who was but a babe at his father's death, stands around looking pained. No wonder.
Things improve dramatically after the anticlimactic scene at the stake that removes Giroux's irritatingly earthbound Joan from the action and replaces her with McKenna's firm version of Margaret d'Anjou, the French princess who the smitten Suffolk (Jonathan Goad) wins for his young king.
In the role of the woman who will become mad old Queen Margaret in Richard III, McKenna has but a single scene in which to take the character from fluttering maidenhood to ambition worthy of Lady Macbeth.
She does it admirably well, and now the play settles into its most interesting section as she and her lover, Suffolk, plot against the king's protector, Gloucester (David Francis), and his no-less-ambitious wife (Jane Spence) who consults wizards in her own Macbeth-like moment.
Meanwhile, the factions of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York (Thom Marriott) and the Earl of Somerset (Robert King) pluck the white and red roses that will come to symbolize the long and bloody quarrel between the houses of York and Lancaster.
The cast is well spoken and the characters' connivances neatly explained, so that Therriault can now build up a strong contrast to their vanity and greed as he reveals the young king's ineffectual good will and misjudged compromises. The results of these scenes are gripping: It's Dallas, circa 1460.
Unfortunately, Revolt in England can't sustain that energy nor add much to the portrait of civil confusion sown by narrow self-interest. It begins promisingly with some comedy provided by the peasants' revolt lead by an ever-energetic Goad in the role of the ludicrous pretender, Jack Cade.
But once Cade is suppressed, we are back at court or on the battlefield in yet another lengthy series of feints and reverses, as first York and, after his death, his son Edward (Rami Posner) try to wrest the crown from the weakening Henry. McKenna continues powerfully as the warrior Queen Margaret, but Therriault's weakly smiling Henry brings no weight to the man's spiritual remove from events around him.
Rubin and fight director John Stead stage all the battles powerfully, with a gradual move away from naturalism that takes us from loudly clashing swords in the first play to swirling banners in the second. But Rubin's other scenic devices, from an awkward paper tent in the first to an unconvincing appearance by an oversized figure of Death in the second, are more weird than wonderful, no thanks to designer Pennoyer's rather clunky execution of these props.
These plays contain the embryos of both Macbeth and Richard III,and Rubin cleverly ends them with a scheming Richard (played here by a suitably nasty Haysam Kadri) speaking the opening lines of the next play in the series: "Now is the winter of our discontent . . ." But after almost six hours of swords and speeches, this marathon is more duty than delight.
Henry VI: Revenge in France and Henry VI: Revolt in England continue in repertory at Stratford's Tom Patterson Theatre to Sept. 28. For information call 1-800-567-1600.