THEATRE: By W. J. IGOE
KING HENRY VI: Parts 1,2 and 3
(Birmingham Repertory Company: The Old Vic) KING HENRY VI was a holy man, given to good works and the founding of scholastic institutions. Eton College was one of the latter and if one accepts the playing fields of that venerable establishment as the arena where England's wars are won, the saintly monarch's motives become apparent. He wanted to cordon off the carnage.
We saw the third part of the play, most admirably produced by Mr. Douglas Scale, after a cloudburst had embarrassed the excellent staff at the Old Vic. What had gone on within the proscenium for three nights can be adequately described as a "bloodburst." Murder had been unconfined. The killers all were well-born and slaughtered with a sincerity equalled only by the fervour of their announcements that each was going to Heaven when his turn came around.
UENRY VI is part of that area of /Shakespeare's work termed doubtful. I don't believe he wrote the first part; his hand ls apparent in
parts two and three, which were written before part one. They were
enormous hits and had very long "runs" for the early 'nineties of the 16th century. 0 n e performance played to a house that paid more than 1.800d.: there were "runs" of more than seven performances without a change in the programme.
Such smash-hits, I suspect, would not be permitted to languish as the young actor-author wrote them. and a further part. set early in Henry's youth. was added. But not. I swear, by Shakespeare: the dreary banal nonsense brayed by the dying Talbot over his son. the unrelieved "corn" of that episode. I cannot accept as Shakespeare's nor indeed Marlowe's. IC, whom it has been attributed. Kit was a "sweet singer"; even if he was the Micky Spillane of his day. he also was a poet. Part one is gory rubbish.
In the hands of Mr. Seale it becomes a "comic strip" of roaring. spirited entertainment.
The three parts are presented, on successive evenings, within a single set, a great arch, flanked by two smaller. a Gothic triptych that can become a prison, the court, the centre of a town. a ruin looking out on a battle field, or a frame for an altar. Each scene is contained; the effect is of a swift-moving reel of pictures. War abroad and civil war fill the stage and the producer wisely concentrates on strife as the connecting theme.
THE poetry, notably in part three when the saintly king reflects upon the evil of war and the awful fate of monarchs, is given in an atmosphere of stillness; it is set apart from the grosser struggles of existence; it is sublimated.
So Henry stands in the light of the great central arch, in an attitude reminiscent of Velazquez's "Immaculate Conception." poised on the world, and voices his meditation.
Mr. Jack May's interpretation of the king. an uncommonly difficult part. is taken from the attitude of the contemplative; and the actor is successful. He moves with radiant eoodness through the chivalrous beastliness of the surrounding scene. He eroclaims the reliaious comment on the conscienceless delinquents that surround him.
HAKESPEARE a learned friend se/defined to me last week as a "trimmer." by which he meant that the Bard. morally and spiritually. knew when he trim his sails, Since I do not believe Shakespeare wrote part one I hardly can believe hire responsible for the obscene claptrap about St. Joan that defiles the play; but that same nonsense reveals the temper of the English playhouse of the period and the flattering unction laid by entertainers to kings and commoners alike.
What is more likely, in the case against Shakespeare as a man. is that he played Goebbels to the Tudors in his treatment of the House of York and the French.
Apart from Henry. blandly butcheredby "that valiant crookhack prodigy. Dicky your boy," all sides conspired. in the plays. to make QueenBess look good. Henry is offered as almost wickedly weak and the mob is shown as moronic which. agreeable as 1, personally. find the latter interpretation/must have appealed strongly to the Tudor dictator.
A great poet, indeed, our Will. the greatest poet, but where in the works
can one find an opinion that might have clashed with those held by the "boss-class" of the late 16th and early 17th century? How many martyrs were dragged by the tavern where he chatted of a morning. the lodging where he wrote late into the night, the theatre where he scored the successes that made Greene green with envy? We may have a merry time speculating? But back to the plays.
TIHE apprentice hand strengthens in parts one and two; we almost can se: him find himself when, in part three. Crookback changes from a common tough, with a rose in his hat, into the supreme theatrical villain of English drama.
In the opening scenes, until the death of York, he is one of the family; cruelly wicked to the opposing "mob" as they to his faction, hut a good son and brother.
Suddenly the young Shakespeare seems to realise the puppet he has fashioned. his potentialities. And "Dicky the hump" becomes a Shakespearean creation, capable of infinite interpretations; like great music in the hands of a good performer it always moves.
Mr. Edgar Wreford, I am glad to report. does not offer us another variation of Olivier's superb and beefy gargoyle; he gave us a pallid grub in grey chainmail. a humorously malicious he-witch that brought the audience roaring on its heels at the final curtain speech, which Mr. Seale. wisely I believe, lifted from Richard Ill. This is a good actor; and if I did not roar as loudly as the cash customers. it was because he must do more with his voice; it must control all through. When he grips all the words, his will be a king of Crookbacks.
Collectors of Shakespearean productions must go to the Vic to see this splendid offering. Those in search of entertainment will be foolish if they go elsewhere.
I commend Miss Rosalind Boxall's singing viperish Margaret. Mr. John Arnett's York and Miss Nancie Jackson. Mr. Bernard Hepton, Mr. Peter Driver and Mr. Peter Henchie, each in a variety of roles.