When one finds oneself in Stratford on Avon, one ought to catch a play. And the play to catch in the birth and resting place of William Shakespeare, in that famed city of swans, was most recently Henry VI Part II . According to the infrequency of staged productions of this history play, one might think Henry VI Part II adheres to the old maxim: beware the sequel. But in the most recent rendering from the Royal Shakespeare Company, the poetic power of one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays persists — despite, however, some of the most peculiar directing I have seen in a long while.
And that’s saying something. Once at London’s Globe Theatre I saw an unscripted Mardi Gras parade break out in Two Gentlemen of Verona, which Shakespeare had set in Renaissance Italy but the director staged in almost ancient Greece. Now there’s no problem with a bit of anachronism: Richard III as a Nazi, Much Ado About Nothing in the Roaring 20s, the witches of Macbeth as Twilight Zone narrators with googly-eye glasses and tuxedos. Even Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of Hamlet wasn’t ruined by dressing each character up in a different period costume. And how can one forget the intrusive sexual imagery in the film version of Titus Andronicus, starring Anthony Hopkins? Some change is good — but only some, thanks very much.
For those familiar with Henry VI Part II, a key character is Jack Cade, a frightening demagogue. He incites the rabble of Kent to riot, rebellion and war by speciously claiming to be the rightful descendant to the throne. He describes himself as the hitherto unheard-of elder twin of the daughter of the Duke of York. He thereby places himself ahead of Henry IV, V and VI, not to mention the usurping Duke of York featured in this play. Jack Cade is a frightening example of the results of constant upheaval and revolution. He shows that when law, custom, tradition and peace are lost, wit and a forked tongue can cause untold mischief.
But those unfamiliar with him might have thought that Jack Cade was a retired transvestite trapeze artist scraping a living together as the MC of an underground cabaret. Caked in more rouge and lipstick than the subject of a Toulouse-Lautrec painting, and effetely dangling from a trapeze, this fearsome demagogue descended to a stage milling with the rabble of Kent in a too-short, red waist coat, blue eye-shadow and an outlandishly frilly Elizabethan ruff.
The rabble included several characters whom Shakespeare had buried long before. The Duke of Gloucester’s bloody ghost shuffled ghoulishly around for scenes after his death. The dead Cardinal Beaufort’s ghost wandered about in a long night shirt, holding a frothy flagon, for an entire act after Shakespeare had written him out of the play. The headless corpse of Suffolk was brought into the riot by two actors dressed in fish-head costumes.
Now it is fine and well to put a hint of one’s own creativity into the ambiguous cracks of Shakespeare’s works. But to have an interpolated ghost of Gloucester hold down the arms of the Cardinal as he dies, thereby preventing him from signalling to Henry VI that he was attempting to make a good death? This completely mars a crucial scene designed to show that even a horrible and unrepentant death was not enough to alert the naïve and pietistic Henry VI to his evil counsellors.
The rabble into which Cade descended also contained gimps and lunatics in ball-muzzles and straight jackets more like Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction than Shakespeare’s histories. In fact, the entire rabble and Cade himself seemed to be the disturbed projection of some deeply troubled inner child of director Michael Boyd or his actors. Unhappily, it is typical of post-modern theatre to make the interpreter into the real artist. Shakespeare and his words are irrelevant. In the words of Jack Cade, “the proudest peer in the realm shall not wear a head on his shoulders, unless he pay me tribute". As usual, the Bard has words for everything, even his own evisceration.
And yet the Royal Shakespeare Company cannot obliterate the awesome power of its patron saint. Even the use of chimes and gongs to highlight every other phrase of import by the characters, chimes and gongs that echoed for several seconds and enforced unnatural pauses on the fluid dialogue of the play — even these did not stifle the stunning ambition of York. Even a five-minute sequence with two, one-eyed would-be midgets pretending to behead members of the audience who were brought on stage — even these did not squelch the sense of horrible inaction on the part of Henry VI, played by Chuk Iwuji, a diminutive black actor of middiling talent.
Did the young Warwick, played by a wannabe Morpheus of The Matrix with shaven head, two samurai swords and a forced booming voice, stifle the unbridled ambition of the nobility? Did his ninja flailing? Did the slain soldiers suspended by piano wire, sometimes alive and cheering, sometimes limp and dangling? Nay — even these failed to drown the Bard.
The Royal Shakespeare Company, in conjunction with a number of other companies with less hopeful names, such as the Tiny Ninja Theatre troupe, have set themselves the task of performing the Bard’s complete works over the next year on stages throughout England. I admire their energy and ambition. But I rejoice that I was in Stratford on Avon for only a day– although it was just long enough to start counting the number of times I heard Shakespeare roll in his grave.
Matthew Mehan is US Editor of MercatorNet. He recently spent a fortnight in the UK.