The Grand Opera House hosts the Globe Theatre's touring production of Shakespeare's history plays
Henry VI, Part I is one of Shakespeare’s earliest dramas, written when he was still in this 20S, and one of the first plays to put history on stage for public consumption.
Both these facts matter in an assessment of the piece: it’s no King Lear, is almost totally lacking in the memorable turns of phrase that later Shakespeare plays bequeathed to the English language, and rarely pauses to scrape below the surface of its characters’ ostensible motivations.
What, in the circumstances, is a theatre company to do with it? Play it fast and straight, is the answer offered by Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, the company based on London’s South Bank, in an open-air reconstruction of the arena in which many of Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed.
The Globe’s touring production of Harry The Sixth, as they are calling it, majors on directness, and on a brisk, ungimmicky telling of the story. At two hours’ playing time, this is not one of those marathon Shakespearian evenings that seriously test the design quality of the seat that you are sitting in.
Costumes are period-generic, the set comprised of two Meccano-like gantry towers mimicking a variety of locations. They flank a central podium where for much of the time Harry, the new young King, languishes, perusing books, or timorously observing the reptilian manoeuvrings of the courtiers that surround him.
Harry is one of the few characters vouchsafed a modicum of psychological complexity – there are no Hamlet soliloquies in the play, no lacerating Macbeth-like introspection, few moments of pained self-revelation.
Actor Graham Butler makes the most of what he’s given, emphasising the King’s callowness, his feckless naïvety, and a strain of foppish other-worldliness, creating a power vacuum for the Machiavellian schemings of those around him.
Beatriz Romilly’s Joan of Arc is the other character who, psychologically speaking, is allowed to peep momentarily over the parapet. Romilly, like Butler, makes much of little, briskly establishing Joan’s gripping sense of divine mission, and the wide-eyed, visionary qualities that magnetised the French fighting population behind her.
In the scene preceding her burning at the stake, she bounds wildly across the stage like a tethered animal, cursing her own father bitterly and spewing curses on her captors. You sense Shakespeare’s fascination with the fire that drives her – if he’d written Henry VI later in his career, we would undoubtedly have seen more of it.
Among a robust and hard-working company of supporting actors – most multi-parting – Andrew Sheridan is specially effective as Lord Talbot, keening over his dead son on the battlefield – ‘Where is my other life? Mine own is gone’ – before slumping dead himself, in one of the play’s genuinely moving moments.
Military drums of various sizes, and at one point an eerie bowed cymbal, signal moments of heightened drama or conflict, and there’s strategic use of a cappella singing to underscore key emotional content.
The numerous battle scenes are played out in a stylised dumb show where combatants flail round melodramatically in the air, missing their intended targets by the length of several football pitches. Whatever happened to the noble art of realistic stage fighting? Have the health and safety people scuppered it altogether?
There is, however, immeasurably more in this production to admire than there is to denigrate. The crisp storytelling consistently pleases, conveying the fast sweep of history, with individual characters frequently reduced to hapless ciphers.
The harsh reality of how weak leadership can fatally destabilise a nation’s political structures is also clinically presented, not least visually, as a silk-gowned Harry, snugly cossetted in his throne-tower, reads theoretical treatises as a bloody war with the French unravels, and his advisers rage for factional domination.
Globe Theatre is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast till Saturday, with all three Henry VI plays showing, both separately and in tandem, in which Henry must contend with the long and bloody Wars of the Roses. It’s a unique opportunity to see these rarely performed pieces staged by a company renowned for getting closer than most to what Shakespeare may originally have intended.
Henry VI Parts I, II and III run at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until August 31.