The three plays about King Henry VI rank low in the Shakespearean canon for character and poetry but paradoxically have the heaviest popular culture presence, as an acknowledged source for the regicidal TV epic Game of Thrones. The middle drama also contains one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” spoken by an ally of Jack Cade, the populist demagogue who, as proxy for the Yorkists, threatens the House of Lancaster’s hold on the throne.
The production by Owen Horsley (RSC boss Gregory Doran, on compassionate leave, is “consultant director”) imposes no strenuous topicalities but is alert to the fact that a wobbling monarchy and the vulnerability of a populace to muscular false promise particularly chime with this revival. Shakespeare covers most human and political possibilities and, through Cade, skewers the year zero egotists of which Boris Johnson is the latest exemplar.
“Burn all the records of the realm. My mouth shall be the parliament of England,” declares the self-glorying rebel during a campaign based on denigrating the French and pledging unlimited state expenditure. Warned that he has said something “false”, Cade shrugs: “Ay, there’s the question; but I say ’tis true.”
Aaron Sidwell’s swaggering braggart, giddied by the possibility of tyranny as success swells him, directly references no current public mannerisms, but those who watched prime minister’s questions on their phones just before the 1pm start at the Royal Shakespeare theatre marvelled anew at Shakespeare’s historical prescience.
What academics call the H6 plays are staged rarely and, even then, in mashups of the English history cycle. Horsley and Doran create Henry VI: Rebellion from the first four acts of part two and join the remaining scenes to part three to create Wars of the Roses.
Such reshaping reflects that these are early plays, the dramatist sketching scenes of witchcraft, a deranged exiled king, women who out-power their men and the dynamics of popular power that will mature in Macbeth, King Lear and Coriolanus.
Another complication is that the bloodlines and fault lines between the founding fathers of Yorkshire and Lancashire, thickened by French intermarriage, can seem impossibly convoluted: this version helps by giving characters white or red roses on their costumes like November poppies, and using live video capture on a downstage screen to underline those being mentioned or remembered.
As much of the plot turns on ownership of territory on either side of the Channel, stretches of text sound as if people are reciting English cricket and French football leagues at each other. This version trims these but, at a time when many directors quietly rewrite dead words, actors are trusted, in the RSC tradition, to transmit antique meanings. “Porpentine” is changed to “porcupine” but multiple obscurities, such as “conventicles” (conferences) and “alderliefest” (most dear) are kept.
With the percentage of great lines low by Shakespearean standards, the production sensibly focuses on the action – flinch-inducing battles, power brokers squaring up – and deep mining of psychology. Mark Quartley vividly captures the sixth King Henry’s combination of frail body and strong mind and pious focus on his soul. Minnie Gale, as his Queen Margaret, rivetingly embodies a sensual warrior queen who seems to cross Joan of Arc (a character in part one) with a flattering fantasy of the playwright’s patron, Elizabeth I. Oliver Alvin-Wilson’s Duke of York projects the charismatic physicality, deviousness and resentments that his son Richard will only two thirds inherit. Arthur Hughes’s stinging delivery of the soliloquies of “misshapen Dick” (as Margaret calls him) excitingly previews the Richard III he will play in June.
A stage direction calling for “infinite numbers” would stretch even generous Arts Council England funding, but the use of regional community troupes (from Nottingham on press day) and RSC Next Generation youth performers give a proper sense of crowds in plays to which their power is so pivotal.