Theater Review: Henry VI, by the Globe Theatre, in York

If you saw my recent review of the RSC’s Titus Andronicus, you’ve figured out that I’m a Shakespeare fan. Since I moved to the UK, just under three months ago, I’ve seen four Shakespeare plays, and have tickets to see a few more. This is part of my project to see every Shakespeare play live at least once, as soon as possible.

But you will also have seen, in the Titus review, that I said that “Henry VI Part I was an insipid performance, with wooden actors and uninteresting staging.” Last night, I went to see Henry VI Part II, at York’s Theatre Royal. It was as bad is the first part, so much so that my girlfriend and I left at the interval (intermission). What’s going on here? Why are these performances so bad?

I haven’t ruled out the possibility that I’m missing something. Being aware of early music performance practice, I wonder if the Globe company isn’t trying to do some sort of “authentic” performance. While this is possible, it still doesn’t jibe with what they’re doing on stage. The actors are, for the most part, stiff and wooden, except when one of them turns on the ham amplifier. Some of the actors are simply bad – I won’t mention names – and sound as if they are simply declaiming their lines. Others show emotion, enough to invalidate the hypothesis of some sort of original performance style.

To be fair, these early history plays are not the most interesting. Yet Henry VI was written around the same time as Titus Andronicus, and the RSC production of that play was unforgettable. (It’s so good, I’m planning to see it again in September.) There is little scintillating language in Henry VI, the plots are tangled and confusing, and at both performances, it was hard to follow what was going on. This was compounded in Part I, where several actors played two roles, one of an English character, the other of a Frenchman.

Another thing I wonder is whether the Globe company can play on a normal stage. The Globe Theatre in London has a thrust stage – where the stage reaches out into the audience, so the actors are playing in the middle of the spectators – as does the RSC’s two theaters in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Perhaps being forced to use a standard stage limits them in their movements and actions. It was almost painful to see, at times, a dozen characters standing stock-still on the stage as one or two characters were speaking.

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One element that was particularly poor was when, in Act II, Scene I, four falconers stood on stage, holding their arms up with invisible hawks, going, “Caw, caw.” But the shark-jumping moment came at the end of the first part of the play, just before the interval. In Act IV, Scene I, Suffolk is executed. In this production, he is led up to the top of one of two metallic scaffolds on the stage which represent towers. His head is lopped off, and a rubber head is dropped onto the stage just before the lights on stage are extinguished. But the dropping of this head is funny, and, at what should be a very serious moment in the play, the audience laughed quite loudly. Doing something like this to provoke laughter, at this point in the play, makes no sense.

I found little in this play to be enjoyable. Even assuming that the Henry VI plays are among Shakespeare’s weakest, I feel the Globe should have done much more to try to make these plays interesting. I note that the York performances were the first on a tour of these plays. I wonder if things will change as they go on, and especially whether they’d be better when they play in their home theater. But it’s more than just the stage. Most of the actors don’t seem invested in their parts, and the ones who are stand in stark contrast to the blandness of the rest of the troupe.

This all surprises me, as I have seen several DVDs of the Globe performing in their own theater, all of which have been very well done. There’s a real disconnect here between what the Globe can do, and what they’ve done with the Henry VI plays.

I won’t be going to see Part III, and hope to be able to get a refund for my unused tickets. There were plenty of empty seats at Part I; there seemed to be more at Part II; I wonder how many people will stick it out and see Part III.

(An aside: the York Theatre Royal is extremely uncomfortable. I’m six feet tall, and I felt, sitting in the theatre, like being on an airplane. Even my girlfriend, who is about six inches shorter than me, found the legroom too limited. I may not go back to that theatre.)

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13 thoughts on “Theater Review: Henry VI, by the Globe Theatre, in York

  1. Superb! You seem to be enjoying England! – You’ll be soon doing your next video podcast wearing a leotard, can’t wait for that! ;) Shaun

  2. I was there at York Theatre Royal last night and walked out in the interval too; I found your post by looking online to see if I’d missed reviews warning how peculiar the production was!

    I’ve never walked out of a play before but Suffolk’s death being handled so oddly was the final straw for me, I really couldn’t see why you would put on three dramatic, political tragedies and then play them for cheap laughs with silly props and invisible falcons.

    Unsurprisingly, I’m skipping the third play as well.

    • Thanks for confirming my thoughts. My girlfriend and I discussed this quite a lot last night, and were really confused about whether we simply didn’t get it. I’m glad we’re not alone.

      I, too, looked for reviews online, but found that the York run is the first of the tour. The only review I saw was one in a local newspaper website, which says nothing at all of substance.

  3. Hi
    I am really surprised by your review and wonder what shows you saw! I went to the first Trilogy day and have rarely had such splendid day at the theatre. The performances were outstanding (especially Margaret, York and Richard of Gloucester (to be Richard III in part 3), the design and direction bold and innovative (although I will admit the falcons maybe didn’t work), but the use of the scaffolding and imagery overall were amongst the best that the Globe has done.
    The house was full for all three performances and the productions received a standing ovation (which is very rare in Britain, especially for touring productions in regional houses – only extremely good productions are acclaimed this way).
    Sorry you missed part 3 – if I’d known you and that you weren’t going, I’d have snapped your ticket up!
    Best regards

    • Interesting comments. The house was far from full for I and II; my seats were in the dress circle, which was less than half full. It did look fuller down below, and I didn’t see how it looked on the top level.

      At the end of the first, there was polite applause, and nothing more. I don’t know about the second. My tickets for III are for this Wednesday; we may go for the first half, out of curiosity, but I have no expectations of it being interesting.

      I find it curious how much of a difference people’s opinions can be about something like this. It’s not that the direction was contentious; it would be understandable if people disagreed in such a case. It’s that it was simply boring, as my comments, and Alex’s comments above say. I truly wonder why you found it interesting and we didn’t…

  4. Thanks for courteous response – I was a bit opinionated in my first sentence, sorry!
    I wonder if you found it dull as you are seeing the shows individually – Separately, the Henry VIs (and the Henry IVs) are a bit of a hard sell but in recent yrs as I expect you know, several companies are presenting them as one series (vis -a-vis the RSC’s Histories). I actually have only seen them on Trilogy days, when I think about it!
    But the continuity of the story telling, watching the arcs of the history ( Margaret from young princess to avenging harridan, for example) is for me, fascinating and great fun (and certainly all the characters are much better written and portrayed than in the White Queen on tv at the moment (though I admit the latter is a guilty pleasure!)

    You mentioned earlier that you thought some of the perfs hammy – This is sort of a house style of the Globe – that huge space needs big show-y performances and maybe the Theatre Royal is in fact too small for that kind of style? I am looking forward to the Battlefield performances and when it goes into the Globe

    I really do hope you enjoy Pt three more! Especially for Simon Harrison as Richard of Gloucester – he is storming (he is at his height in second half of Pt 3!)
    Best wishes

    • You mention the “house style of the Globe.” I had thought of that, but the DVDs I’ve seen of their performances are nothing like what I saw on stage. But I do wonder about the stage, since they’re familiar with working on a thrust stage with voms; it did seem that they were uncomfortable standing on the Theatre Royal stage, which, given the set, didn’t leave much room for them.

  5. Wow, I am staggered by your poor review to these quite outstanding productions of the Henries. I attended the 3 show day on Sunday, and I can honestly say I have never had such an enjoyable day at the theatre in over 40 years. I don’t think you realise the accomplishment of putting on the 3 plays with a cast of only 14. I am completely baffled that you think some of the performances were stiff and wooden. The cast are one of the most talented ensemble of actors I have ever seen. I would like to name the entire cast but in particular Garry Cooper as Gloucester, Beatriz Romilly as Joan of Arc & Brendan O’Hea as Duke of York were wonderful – I was also very impressed with some of the other younger members of the cast. And the way they were staged, I found to be simply stunning. You made a mistake in leaving at the interval of part 2 – how can you possibly judge without seeing the complete picture?! Part 3’s torturous murder of York was nothing short of extraordinary, and the famous son-killing-his-father scene was heartbreaking and beautifully performed. I fully respect your ambition to see every Shakespeare play live, but perhaps you need to pay a visit to the Globe theatre – you will understand the style of the plays they put on a little better. I have to say, I felt these productions of the Henry’s to be quite “un-Globe” like – far edgier. A spellbinding experience.

  6. Also – to say they were uncomfortable standing on the Theatre Royal stage as they are used to working at the Globe is a little ignorant! These are hugely experienced actors who have performed in all sorts of different theatres!

  7. One more thing – I felt the dropping of Suffolk’s head was a very small moment of lightness in a trilogy filled with death, angst, war & violence. And if you had stayed on to the 2nd half, you would have seen how the head was used to great effect at the beginning of the brilliant Jack Cade section.

  8. Alan, thank you! I quite agree – and today’s review in the Stage http://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/review.php/38730/henry-vi-harry-the-sixth-the-houses-of-york is also v good.
    Kirk, no offence intended and everyone’s opinion is valid – world would be a boring place if everyone thought the same – but I do urge you to please give the plays a second bash if you get the opportunity! – I hope you enjoy pt 3 on Wednesday! I am watching 3 of the Globe Trilogy days and St Albans Battlefield performances. Can’t wait!

    With best wishes

    Claire

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