|Sarah Fallon in Henry VI, Part 3. Photo by Tommy Thompson|
My love of this tetralogy [you must include Richard III] has caused me to engage in much study of Shakespeare's [and others'] history plays in general and the Henry VI plays in particular over the past six months. In addition to independent study, and viewing Jane Howell's brilliant BBC trilogy of the plays, the 1960 BBC's An Age of Kings, and the 1965 RSC version called Wars of the Roses, I had the pleasure of attending the opening day of rehearsals. I'd probably never been so excited about seeing a production. It was kind of like waiting to go on vacation or when your favorite sports team is playing for a major championship. Unlike the result of so many of those instance, I was not disappointed with the outcome. These two performances rank with some of the best I've ever seen at the Blackfriars, with amazing individual performances highlighting an incredible ensemble. The only productions I can say that rival it were the 2009 Hamlet, the 2009 Titus Andronicus, last year's Henry VI, Part 2 and the past two Henry IVs.
The Henry VI plays never get the credit they deserve. They are often derided because of their perceived unimaginative title, the fact that they are in parts (didn't hurt Star Wars or The Godfather), the fact that they were early plays (and may have been written by more than just Shakespeare) or because they are history plays. I counter those arguments by saying that Henry VI, Part 3 is the most action packed play in the canon. It features an amazing villain (or a few depending on your favorite rose color); one of Shakespeare's strongest and most ferocious female characters; a psychotic, revenge twisted killer; a nearly Sainted martyr in the title role, and all the intrigue and violence an audience can handle. Not only that, it is the vehicle that leads to one of Shakespeare's undisputed masterpieces: Richard III.
The action starts immediately and really never lulls. We get the classic ASC Rose Wars/Star Wars scroll and theme and then we are introduced to Jeremy West's Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. This is the role that Rene Thornton, Jr. played brilliantly the past two seasons. Any fears I had that West would not deliver as well were quickly allayed early in Ren Season and during rehearsals. West does a tremendous job in this role and later as Somerset. His fight scenes are always top notch and the battle between he and Chris Johnston's bloody butcher Clifford is a show stealer. His death scene as he verbally assails Sarah Fallon's "She-Wolf of France" Margaret is theatre gold. His Somerset also has a subtle, crotch grab in response to Benjamin Curns' Richard of Gloucester's deathly serious verbal assault shortly before the Battle of Tewkesbury. That is comedic gold and typical of those guys.
Sarah Fallon's aforementioned performance as Queen Margaret is at all times emotional. She vacillates between fits of rage and fits of despair. Rarely does a character traverse so many peaks and valleys of emotions as Margaret. From her taunting of York on his death destined molehill to her bullying of her ineffectual King, to the despair she feels upon seeing her son Prince Edward (a small role, heightened by the magnificent job by Miriam Donald), one feels the power of Fallon's performance. Fallon is always excellent, but she is brilliant in roles such as Margaret and Tamora.
The Dean of the Blackfriars, John Harrell, is again superb in the role of a King. His Edward IV/Edward Duke of York exudes regal power but also has the subtle Harrell humor that we all love, his lecherous interactions while "wooing" Lady Elizabeth Grey being a case in point. In the final act we get a glimpse of his failing health. No one plays sick quite like Harrell, and he always sells the pain convincingly. Also playing sick, though in a different way, is Patrick Midgeley, as the tortured, paranoid Clarence. His facial expressions throughout the play tell of a man at war with himself and others. Another face to watch is that of Jeremiah Davis, whose funny expressions as Henry of Richmond and as the English messenger to King Lewis XI had the crowd giggling.
Tyler Moss as Warwick delivers one of the greatest death scenes in Shakespeare, bleeding and bleating with emotion as he realizes his dreams have been torn asunder and his beloved brother Montague (played aptly by Daniel M. Burrows) has died in the same manner, calling out in vain for Warwick. Moss is also amazing as the front-man on the cover of Fistful of Mercy's "Father's Son," a version that truly destroys the original. Also look for a great banjo solo by Chris Johnston. Other great musical performances are a tremendous version of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" featuring Curns on vocals and he and Johnston on Guitar; Greg Phelps and Johnston [on lead banjo no less] on Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Simple Man," a cover of Mumford and Sons "But My Heart Told My Head," and Phelps providing lead vocals on Tom Petty's "It's Good to be King." Other songs were "New Rose" by The Damned, "Blood on the Ground" by Incubus, and "Save it for Later" by The English Beat.
Speaking of Phelps, his turn as Henry VI is terrific, sympathetic, and downright sad. Phelps is the first male to play the role, following Alyssa Wilmoth's young King in Part 1, and Denice Burbach in Part 2. I was at first a bit worried about the casting because I had a hard time envisioning Phelps playing an especially weak character, but his turn is the best of the three. You can't help but feel awful for Henry, knowing he doesn't even want to be King. He's been dominated by everyone around him throughout his life, he can never live up to the expectations set forth by his larger than life father, and he can't seem to do anything but make things worse when he tries to appease others. His scenes with the fathers & sons are so sad. He finally shows a backbone upon hearing of the murder of his beloved Prince Edward, but it's too little, too late as an enraged Richard butchers him in the tower in his "bloody supper." It will be interesting to see his take on Henry's father, Henry V this fall.
Two other performers had turns that I thought were exceptional. Chris Johnston's Clifford is one of the most amazing, brilliantly conceived performances I've seen. He definitely gets into a "place" for this role. He really takes on the Clifford persona, with a psychotic drive to get what he wants or die trying. This is the most physical I've ever seen Chris on stage and probably the most wildly emotional. There are times when he is teetering on the edge of some type of angrily aroused sexual energy while he restrains York as Margaret assails him. Just watch his face in that scene, you'll be shocked with how much emotion he can draw out without speaking a word. This role along with his turn as Demetrius in Titus Andronicus should show folks that Chris, while always great in a humorous role is a great dramatic actor. His murder of the innocent Rutland and his abuse of the priest make you want to hate him, but you just can't help but feel that you'd do the same in his shoes if your father were killed. The fight with the Duke of York is one of the best fight scenes I've seen at the Blackfriars. In fact, this play features the best fight choreography I've seen on stage at the ASC. Clifford's final fight with Richard is tremendous and features one of Ben Curns' favorite wrestling moves: the Testicular Claw. Clifford's death scene is a bloody, brutal end to a fantastic character. Johnston is also terrific as the French King Lewis XI (I love the musical theme they use for French Kings at the ASC) playing him as an aloof, haughty monarch, and his treatment of Margaret as Lord Hastings following Tewkesbury and the murder of Ned is brutal [one of the saddest scenes in the play].
Benjamin Curns' performance as Richard of Gloucester is simply put: brilliant. I had been waiting a year to see this role, knowing that Curns would not disappoint, and he didn't. I've seen Curns steal shows many times, but this will probably be the role I will always remember him in. Richard is kind of the Darth Vader of Shakespeare, but also a bit of The Joker as well. Curns is perfect for that type of role, he loves to work the crowd and play the bad guy with a grin and that's on full display here. Richard is comically evil, though moreso in Richard III than here. Here, he's a little more straight bad. The "pluck it down" soliloquy before the interval is so good that I was determined to applaud it interval or not. I wanted to applaud after some death scenes too, but I felt that might be inappropriate. There are many times where you should just look at Richard to see his reactions to things that are going on rather than the speaker, as in any time a potential heir to Edward is brought up. At the end of the play watch for "Now is the winter of our discontent..." come out of Curns' mouth. If you get nothing else out of this review, know that you need to see this performance of a deliciously evil character. I hope the powers that be know what a tremendous talent and gem of a person they have in Ben Curns.
Forgiving and ignoring any indulgences or nostalgic feelings I may have for this play, the performance is quite simply amazing and I have a feeling by producing these plays the ASC has helped to create a cult classic and perhaps given the history play a renaissance of their own. Like an old friend, I will miss this production when it's gone.