Three Henrys, two hits

14th May 2012

To Shakespeare’s Globe on a sunny Sunday morning. This is my first live encounter with the Globe to Globe season of all 37 plays by 37 companies in 37 languages. (I have also been watching recordings of some of the productions on The Space.) There are only the three today: Henry VI parts 1, 2 and 3, performed in Serbian, Albanian and Macedonian. These plays are among the most under-performed and under-valued in the canon, the latter adjective a judgement that once again has been confirmed nearly ten hours after we start. By which time we have seen two strong, innovative productions and one that disappoints. Once again, too, I have found that after all these years (I have been going to the Globe since 1998) I remain ambivalent about it as a place to watch plays.

The National Theatre of Belgrade’s production of Henry VI part 1 is played on, around and beneath a large circular table heavily built in a number of metal parts. The table is used scenicly, sculpturally and musically and is a wonderful way of imaging and imagining the splits and fissures in the lands and body politics of both England and France. I am not going to attempt to precis the complex actions of the trilogy, but essentially the three plays are concerned with the battles with France and the battles among the English nobles following the death of Henry V. The third part culminates with Edward IV on the English thronebut with Richard, Duke of York, plotting to seize power as Richard III.

This Serbian Henry VI part 1, adapted and dircted by Nikita Milivojevic, is economic (just two hours including an interval), energetic, physical, intelligent and imaginative. The costumes suggest a Mad Max take on the medieval and the battles are staged with stylised choreography. When the assembled lords chose which side they are on for the forthcoming war of the roses, they smear a touch of either red or white warpaint across their forehead. The otherwise all-male company is blessed with a glorious Joan of Arc from Jelena Dulvezan (above). And the two comic messengers have a central role, not least in a final scene that is as funny as any you will ever see involving the cremated remains of an English king.

After this, Henry VI part 2 from the National Theatre of Albania is pretty much a bust: tired and old-fashioned and unimaginatively staged. So perhaps it is the lack of stimulation from the stage that reminds me that I do get irritated by all the distractions that seem inevitable at the Globe: the noises off, people walking around, the aspirationally discreet efforts of the ushers to control the groundlings.

I know, I know that at one level all of this is the point of the theatre, and I know too that this is the flipside of it being a visceral space with a unique relationship between actors and audience. But that’s of little comfort when you have booked a seat in the lower gallery right next to doorway 2 and you constantly, constantly have to watch and hear the stream of people coming in and out throughout the performance.

Somehow I invariably feel outside a performance here, observing from a distance but rarely if ever becoming truly involved with the psychologies and emotional lives of the characters. I have laughed here, and sometimes a lot, I have been shocked and stimulated, but have I ever cried or come close to doing so?

Although it can hardly compete with the just concluded off-stage drama two hundred and fifty miles north, Henry VI part 3 from the Macedonian National Theatre Bitola is a joy. Even if the language remains closed to us, it is quickly clear that these are splendid actors, and none more so than Gabriela Petrushevska as Queen Margaret. In her flamboyant crimson costumes and scarlet high heels, she dominates the stage until her final unravelling.

There is, of course, something disconcerting, but also rather fascinating, about seeing different actors take the same roles across the plays. On the few other occasions when it has ben possible to see all three Henry VIs in a day (Michael Boyd’s momentous Histories for the RSC is the only one I have witnessed) there is invariably consistency in the actor playing, say, Henry VI across the dramas. Here we see three actors, offering quite different interpretations, and the result is fascinating.

As with the other two parts, this third drama is played without sur-titles but with brief scene descriptions posted on two electronic screens to the side of the action. Operating rather like the placards in a Brecht production, these unquestionably allow the audience to follow what’s going on (or they do when they keep up with events, which isn’t always). In fact, given the complexities of the action, they help me follow the twists and turns, the treaties and betrayals more clearly than is normally the case.

As with the Serbians first off, this production brings out the comedy of the play, and has a wickedly funny Richard, Duke of Gloucester in Martin Mirchevski, who of course must make the audience complicit in the evil power games that he will play to become Richard III. (Has the company done Shakespeare’s Richard III with him, and if so can we see it soon, please?) And unconventionally (to say the least), the central role of Warwick is played by a woman, Sonja Mihajlova, and wonderfully so.

This production also shares with the Serbians a delight in stylised choreography for the battles, which come thick and fast in part 3. Indeed they are staged almost like production numbers, with traces of ancient Greek drama such as a female chorus shimmying along with Busby Berkeley and Martha Graham. The effect could have been inappropriately comic but in fact they come off wonderfully well.

Going into the Globe this morning we were faced with a prominently posted ‘conditions of entry’ that specified we were not allowed to bring in big bags, anything that might be used as a missile or ‘large flags’. Which seemed to suggest that small flags might be OK, and at the curtain call the Macedonian ones came out in an on-stage display of nationalist delight. Even if it had gone ten at night, the company more than deserved its moment in the sun.

Here’s another exceptional Marc Brenner image (that’s his above, as well), this time from the end of Henry VI part 3:

Henry VI part 3 from Shakespeare's Globe; © Marc Brenner

For more photos of Henry VI part 1, go to Shakespeare’s Globe Facebook page.

Matt Trueman reviews the productions for the Guardian: ‘By splitting the trilogy up between three companies, the Globe might get three languages into one narrative, but they diminish the epic sweep of its history, whereby sons settle scores started by their fathers.’

At The Arts Desk Igor Toronyi-Lalic discusses the three productions: ‘a slick Serb Part 1, an effective Macedonian Part 3, and a very very Albanian Albanian Part 2′.

Dan Hutton at The Hutton Enquiry has thoughtful responses to each of the Henry VI productions.

For the Year of Shakespeare reviews at Blogging Shakespeare, Pete Orford has a good post about Henry VI part 1.

I’ll post links to other reviews as I find them.


  1. “These plays are among the most under-performed and under-valued in the canon”

    Agreed. I assume you’ve seem, but the BBC Shakespeare productions of these three then Richard III played out across an increasingly derelict adventure playground demonstrates the power of these plays and also represent one of the great unsung classic pieces of television.

    • John Wyver says:

      You’re absolutely right – Jane Howell’s productions for The BBC Television Shakespeare are wonderful. In fact, television has done rather well by the Henry VI plays – they are a key element of The Age of Kings cycle in 1960 and also of The Wars of the Roses made with the RSC in 1964-65. Nothing since the 1983 cycle though.

      For more, see

  2. Thanks for the link. I’ve seen The Age of Kings by your recommendation and they really benefited from a unity of style. Perhaps if the first Henriad’s successful, the BBC might decide to film the second one. You never know. I can’t wait to hear how Vivat Rex tackles them too.

  3. craig melson says:

    Hey John,

    I totally agree (I reviewed it for PlayShakespeare). Couldnt agree more, especially with the AWFUL Albanian part 2, cos, yeah, disabled people is so original comic material and the less said about the pirate, the better!

    Also, if you like, you can always include my PlayShakespeare reviews. Have the (unenviable at this stage) task of reviewing them all!!!

  4. Dan Hutton says:

    Great review, and thanks for the mention.

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