Globe Theatre's Henry VI
William Shakespeare's three plays set during the Wars of the Roses come to the Grand Opera House from August 28
In 1461, more than 28,000 young men died during the Battle of Towton in Yorkshire at the height of the Wars of the Roses. Just over 550 years after the largest and bloodiest military confrontation to occur on English soil, the three parts of William Shakespeare's Henry VI, in which the battle is vividly portrayed, have been performed on the very site on which it took place.
That same production is poised to come to Belfast's Grand Opera House at the end of August 2013, courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the circular, thatched-roof building located beside the Thames River in London, where many of Shakespeare's plays had their first outings.
Northern Ireland audiences will have the rare opportunity to see Henry VI parts I, II and III either as single entities – Part I takes place on Wednesday 28 and Part II on Friday 29 – or in the shape of a three-part Henryfest, when all three plays will be performed sequentially on Thursday 29 and Saturday 31.
Grand Opera House chief executive Andrew Hill has pulled off a bit of a coup in bringing the Globe Theatre to Belfast during his first fully programmed season. It's an ambitious and laudably risky move, but Hill is confident that it will pull in the customers.
'It's a real privilege for the Grand Opera House to be hosting Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and staging this critically acclaimed production of the Henry VI Trilogy,' he says. 'In offering all three in one day, I think we're giving people an unprecedented chance to be part of something unique and unforgettable.'
Director Nick Bagnall has taken on the dual task of translating this somewhat neglected epic trilogy onto the stage and of cutting back the text to more manageable running times of around two hours duration apiece.
'They are completely stand-alone plays,' Bagnall adds. 'Shakespeare did not write them as a trilogy. That's one of the reasons why the editing process took quite a long time. In fact, I was still doing some pruning during rehearsals. It came down to what I was hearing in the space, taking out little bits of text that felt unnecessary. Cutting out the boring bits, if you like.
'Shakespeare was very incorrect in places. There are time leaps, characters are amalgamated, history is condensed. But all that gave me the freedom to concentrate on the human stories, rather than on the politics of the time. In Part I (Harry the Sixth), Joan of Arc and Talbot are the human heartbeat.
'Part II (The House of York and Lancaster) concentrates on the formality of Court and king, while the rebel and social campaigner Jack Cade also plays a significant part. Part III (The True Tragedy of the Duke of York) is the business end, with killing after killing after killing. There is a rawness to it, an immediacy that could take place anywhere today, in any country which has been devastated by war.'
Still high on the excitement of performances on landmark battlegrounds, as well as in the intense open-air cockpit of the Globe Theatre, Bagnall is bubbling at the prospect of bringing these classic Shakespeare plays to Belfast.
'It's an incredible thing to be coming to Northern Ireland. These specific events may have taken place five centuries ago, but similar tragedies are still happening today in countries like Syria and across Africa. And, of course, Northern Ireland people understand conflict all too well. There's a real vitality about this tour. Everyone in the company is excited at the prospect of performing these plays in Belfast.'
The plays tell the story of the 50-year reign of a king who succeeded to the English throne at the age of just 9 months. While still an infant, Henry also inherited the French crown through his mother Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI of France.
For political reasons, Shakespeare omitted to mention in his works that Henry – a peace-loving, bookish, pious fellow – was prone to bouts of insanity, which, in the circumstances, is hardly surprising.
The viewing public has recently woken up to the drama and treachery of the times through the BBC's tempestuous portrayal of royal family life in The White Queen. Like this television series, Shakespeare's plays are peopled by a multitude of colourful characters. This confronted Bagnall with some serious casting challenges.
'The White Queen is not exactly my cup of tea,' he admits, 'but it has certainly brought those historic names back into the public domain. In the plays there are what feel like thousands of characters played by a cast of 14 actors [including Northern Ireland-born Patrick Myles]. They have to hit the ground running. There is major multi-tasking going on and they need to have high levels of stamina. They do a fantastic job.'
The central role is played by 24 year-old Graham Butler, whose thoughtful stage presence has gained him warm reviews and the undisguised admiration of his director. 'I can't imagine anyone else speaking those lines,' Bagnall contends. 'Graham is inspirational. He is constantly making extraordinary, active choices on what might be thought of as an inactive character.
'Our hearts go out to Henry. He was never anything but a king through his whole life. How on earth does he follow in the footsteps of his father, Henry V, who was one of the most loved of all English kings, though certainly not without his faults. You feel sorry for the kid, growing up in those times in the shadow of such a heroic figure. Graham's portrayal shows him making important decisions as a human being, not as a king.'
And while Bagnall acknowledges that financial considerations may mitigate against forking out on the three-in-one option when the plays arrive in the Grand Opera House, he has a hunch that plenty of paying customers will get carried away with the momentum of the event.
'The plays never stop moving,' he concludes. 'Each is a massive piece of history. If you see the three together, you’ll start to follow certain individuals. I reckon that if you see Part I, you’ll come out saying, “Sod this, I’m going to see Part II". And then, maybe, Part III.'
Henry VI, Parts I, II and III are at the Grand Opera House, Belfast from 28 to 31 August.