Rarely are Boston’s stages graced with a Shakespeare production that reaches this high a level of accomplishment.
Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare. Directed by Tina Packer. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At The Modern Theatre at Suffolk University. Boston, MA, through June 7.
By Ian Thal
Though it contains one of Shakespeare’s most popular lines (“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.”), Henry VI, Part 2 is rarely performed. This is not merely a matter of current fashion: there is no record of the history play being staged in the intervening years between Shakespeare’s time and an 1864 revival. Audiences and producers may be intimidated by the title, perhaps because it is a middle part of a trilogy. There’s also the fact that Part 1 and Part 3 are generally agreed to be among Shakespeare’s weakest plays. Add to this that Henry VI Part Two also calls for the largest cast in any of Shakespeare’s plays. There are fifty characters, which makes it a daunting undertaking, even with actors playing multiple roles (this production uses ten performers). Despite all those challenges, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project production, masterfully directed by Tina Packer, demonstrates that this long-neglected play has plenty of dramatic juice in it — the script deserves greater attention, and not just from completists. Even those who haven’t sampled the Bard since their school days will find this rambunctious production rewarding.
The play opens as the young King Henry (Jesse Hinson), having achieved majority, is wed to Margaret of Anjou (Jennie Israel). Both history and Shakespeare view the titular king as a weak ruler, his character defined more by religious piety (the Vatican was considering him for sainthood just before Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church) than by his skill at civic management or martial prowess. Thus he is buffeted and/or bullied by the influences of whichever stars of his court are ascendent. Worse, he is unable to protect those who have earned his trust, a passivity that makes him vulnerable to foreign powers or domestic rivals who sense royal weakness. Hinson plays Henry as a gentle, out of touch, naïf: his head bowed as if his crown was a heavy wright on his head, his posture lacking the discipline of military training, he treats his time on the throne as if he was viewing a celebratory court masque (though he manages to say the right thing after Gloucester is murdered). He clutches his rosary beads as if he is hoping against hope that they will see him and the country through.
The challenges to Henry’s reign are many: The conditions of his betrothal restore the English crown’s rule of Maine and Anjou to King Charles VII of France. This achieves, by the stroke of pen, what Jean d’Arc could not do by force of arms (in Henry VI, Part 1). Those who fought alongside Henry’s father (in Henry V) feel they have shed the country’s blood in vain, and William de la Pole of Suffolk (Craig Mathers), who negotiated the marriage, uses his influence as the Queen’s lover to advance his power over Henry’s meritorious uncle, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester (Allyn Burrows), the Lord Protector and former regent of Henry’s childhood. Meanwhile the Duke of York (Nigel Gore) sets one faction against the other as he seeks to advance his own rival claim to the throne by way of Richard II.
Henry’s piety (and the clumsiness of his foes) protects him from occult threats – a coven of conjurers is quickly uncovered – his aunt Eleanor Cobham, the Duchess of Gloucester (Marya Lowry) caught as a conspirator and sent into exile. Her once popular husband (Gloucester is one of the few characters in the play presented as unquestionably honorable and loyal to his nephew) is forced to retreat from the public sphere, leaving Henry defenseless.
Perhaps the most exciting on-stage challenge comes from the Jack Cade Rebellion. Though historians attribute the uprising in part to predations by English soldiers on the counties of Kent and Sussex as they set off to France – though Shakespeare sees the rebels as the pawns of York. However far he may depart from his ‘real life’ inspiration, Cade (Burrows) is unprecedented amongst Shakespeare’s characters: a truly lethal clown – through much of Act IV he and his followers ravage England, lopping off the heads of one nobleman after another to great comic effect. He even has his own convoluted claim on the crown, reciting his questionable pedigree — a parody of York’s own claims — even as he strikes the figure of a lord of misrule, espousing an incoherent philosophy that is alternately a parody of anarchy and communism (Shakespeare’s distrusted the hoi polloi as a political class). Behind the mayhem (York’s and Cade’s) is a thirst for absolute dictatorship – the famous line about killing all the lawyers (an ambiguous rallying cry for both tyrant and anarchist) comes from one of Cade’s followers. The historical Cade might have been less of a clown, but the theatrical one comes off as an unacknowledged forerunner of Alfred Jarry’s famous Père Ubu (as well as Mister Punch and Fredrico García Lorca’s Don Cristóbal) He is also a prescient parody of the political extremists and tyrants who have shaped the past century for the worse. Burrows’ portrayal of an ignorant but bloodthirsty imp of perversity is a rip-roaring joy.
There are two excellent female roles here, Queen Margaret and the Duchess of Gloucester, and Packer, the author of Women of Will, sinks her teeth into them with aplomb. Both females are capable and intelligent political actors even with the confines of their societies. Israel’s performance as Margaret is wryly cunning as her various gambits turn toward the morbid when her lover, Suffolk, joins the ranks of the decapitated. Meanwhile Lowry’s Eleanor plays a riskier game: she would like to be Queen but it would involve convincing her husband to betray the nephew to whom he has always been loyal. Lowry’s performance after the the conjurer’s plot unravels and the duchess is sent into exile is a study in humiliation. What’s more, Lowry returns as sea captain and the future Richard III – two roles that allow her to show off her stage combat skills, which sadly I have seen little of since ASP’s 2007 production of Macbeth.
Given the current pop-culture climate in which audiences thrill to stories of cynical realpolitik handily trumping the virtues and idealism of public service (as in the case of popular series such as House of Cards, and Game of Thrones) – the zeitgeist is ripe for Henry VI, Part 2 to be revived – and perhaps, with the taste for long form storytelling so prevalent, Parts 1 & 3 may deserve some love as well. Nonetheless, Part 2 is sufficiently self-contained, beginning with the marriage of Henry and Margaret and ending with the First Battle of St. Albans and start of the Wars of the Roses. Familiarity with the oft-staged Henry V and Richard III provide more than adequate background on what happened before and what happens next.
Jason Asprey’s design for the production’s weaponry and fights is spectacular: from swords, knives, staves, and various props (not obviously weapon-izable) to elbows, knees, fists, or feet of the actors, the choice of implements of mayhem are varied and in some cases are given individual story arcs that flow seamlessly from the action. On occasion, the fracas rises far above mere spectacle, as with such standouts as the fight between Cade and Alexander Iden (Peter G. Andersen) and the comic trial by combat between Horner the Armorer (Steven Barkhimer) and Peter Thump (Andersen).
This is not the first time I have praised Tyler Kinney’s costume design: he clothes his nobles and royals in an assortment of richly colored and patterned velvets, with gold embroidery – but his successes are not just with the richly appointed. The coarser fabrics, leather, ground-in dirt, and ragged hems of the lower classes are also a memorable part of the pageant.
Eric Levenson’s platforms become turrets of castles, decks of ships and balconies; slatted walls become forests; banners of the white rose of York and the red rose of Lancaster are harbingers of the vicious wars to come.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project can always be counted upon to represent the Bard’s works with vigor and imagination – even the relatively obscure plays in the canon. Henry VI, Part 2 goes above and beyond this standard — rarely are Boston’s stages graced with a Shakespeare production that reaches this high a level of accomplishment.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Two of his short plays appeared in theater festivals this past summer. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.