There sure is a whole lot of stuff happening in these plays. Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian’s co-directed productions of Henry VI and Richard III (playing in rep at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse) are full of the gleeful joy of carnage. They leap from kill to kill, all action, almost all plot. The ideological question of who has the right to rule England ultimately becomes less interesting than the question of who is going to die next and how. I’m not sure the whole thing is entirely successful, but there’s something enjoyably batshit and full-pelt about it.
It’s always crystal clear what’s going on, to be fair: the Globe ensemble’s multi-roling is as professional as you’d hope and the cuts to Henry VI are straight to the point. I didn’t know it at all before seeing it, so I’d assumed it was one of the bad ones, but the Globe has ditched Part 1 and streamlined Parts 2 and 3 into a single massive play during which you don’t have time to get bored and start questioning things because something happens in every single scene.
There’s a lads lads lads energy onstage. In Henry VI, the warring Yorkists and Lancastrians wear red and white football shirts and refresh themselves from a bucket of cans. They chant “ENGLAND!” whenever the word is mentioned. It’s less like commitment to a cause than a way of butting into a long-winded speech. It’s a world in which violence holds sway over the word.
In the programme notes, the Globe’s Artistic Director Michelle Terry says that these plays introduce their season ‘exploring the power and perception of the feminine’. I’m not super-convinced by this. The women’s main power in these plays is that they’re inconvenient; they’re stumbling blocks in the way of men’s designs. Queen Margaret is the only real exception: in Henry VI she wages war on the Duke of York and his sons when her husband is too much of a milky little sop to put up a fight. Played by Steffan Donnelly – but not as a draggy joke – she’s scrawny and steely in Henry VI, rolling up her sleeves to shove York’s face into the ground. In Richard III, she’s the one character apart from Richard who carries the memory of war into the new piping time of peace. By then, she’s carrying her grief around in a dirty plastic bag, hurling curses, spitting venom.
As Margaret’s power wanes over the course of the plays, Richard’s power grows. (Up to a point. Spoiler, he dies at the end.) There’s a shift from the rough-and-ready world of Henry VI, where no-one has the chance to do much sneaky insinuation before someone else puts a blunt and brutal stop to it. Richard III picks up where the first play leaves off chronologically, and soon switches gear into something coiled and tidier.
The new courtiers suit up like 1970s gangsters: big-lapelled blazers, black polo necks, gold necklaces. Richard wears a signet ring. His oily ally the Duke of Buckingham (Jonathan Broadbent) looks like a bent lawyer in the pay of the Kray twins. They’ve got a knuckled menace and swagger.
Sophie Russell’s Richard doesn’t have a physical deformity – or a ton of psychological depth. He’s a slinky, cocksure, fun-loving guy. He might hate himself but he isn’t going to let that get in the way of a good time. It’s a slightly shallow characterisation, but whatever, it’s pure fun to watch. Every time one of his enemies is dispatched, he arrives just in time to see them take their final breath, dressed in a variety of tight white suits, crooning a goodbye love song and thanks for the memories.
Russell is clearly the lead figure in the second play, but the whole ensemble are really really good, throughout the double bill. John Lightbody is great both as the honourable Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester in Henry VI and as Richard III’s murderous henchman Sir Richard Ratcliffe, tapping scissors through necks with a weary precision. Sarah Amankwah is chilling as Gloucester’s scheming wife Eleanor and then a ball of wired, scrappy energy as Edward of York, later King Edward IV.
Holmes and Radulian have orchestrated a madcap, bloody ride through the Wars of the Roses: Shakespearean civil war as Tarantino-esque entertainment. It’s sometimes nasty and brutish but it’s never dull.