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It just gets worse. Or Better. The 1980s BBC Henry VI Part III.

May 20, 2017


The set is starting to look really shabby here.  The adventure playground (aka England) is actually falling apart and is no longer safe for children to play in.  Vandals have been at work – but these vandals are all titled nobility.

Jane Howell’s 1982 Brechtian Shakespeare Wars of the Roses sequence stands the test of time magnificently.  By Part III, not only is the set collapsing but the costumes are becoming faded and drab and colourless.  Howell took the sheer confusion of 15th century dynastic warfare not as a difficulty to be resolved but as a dramatic situation to be performed.  Who is better, who is worse?  Richard Duke of York?  Margaret of Anjou?  Warwick the Kingmaker?  Clifford?  Montague?  Edward, George, or Richard Crookback?  In these plays there are no heroes, only villains and victims and villains who become victims and victims who become villains.  If you think you know what’s going on all the time, then you have no visceral sense of what’s really going on any of the time.

In the meantime, insane vainglory drags a lot of innocent people down with it.

Henry VI Part III is freighted with important battles with significant political consequences.  Wakefield, Towton, Barnet and Tewkesbury all demand stage time.  This means that although the play as published is by no means especially long (within the Shakespearean canon), it is much longer in performance as it has to accommodate a deal of steel on steel and grunting.  Some of the speeches are slow in delivery because the character concerned is bleeding to death.  The death of (one-headed) Mark Wing-Davey’s Warwick the Kingmaker is especially slow and nasty.

Margaret of Anjou (Julia Foster) is seen early on as a cold-blooded killer who mocks Bernard Hill’s Duke of York not just with a paper crown but with a cloth stained with his son’s own blood.  (This is the scene that provides the tiger’s heart wrapped in a woman’s hide!” line parodied by Robert Greene to sneer at upstart crow Shakespeare. ) By the end of the play, Margaret lives (though begging for death) to see her own son killed by all three of York’s surviving sons and we weep for her.  It turns out that there is no cruelty perpetuated by anybody that remove someone from the pale of sympathy when grieving for their child?

Let there be no doubt – Margaret of Anjou is the real inspiration for George R.R. Martin’s Cersei Lannister.

The second half of the play might well be called “Richard III – Part One”, as the new Duke of Gloucester starts to offer more and more asides to the audience.  The audience realises that there’s no reason why anyone at the time (with the exception of Henry VI himself) should know that Richard Crookback is any better or worse than any other Plantagenet warlord.  But in the extraordinary speech he makes after killing Peter Benson’s deposed monarch, the “I am myself alone” speech, you realise that someone or something is emerging that will put the dynastic squabbles of the past into chastening perspective.

Ron Cook’s performance is terrifying and charismatic in equal measure.  It is notable that along with inheriting his father’s name, he is the only one of York’s offspring to inherit his accent.

If, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries were obligated to believe, monarchy really is a sacred institution, then the monarch who most resembles Christ should be the best king?  Yet Henry VI is plainly the most Christlike king imaginable and also the most disastrous.  As played by Peter Benson, Henry in Part III gains a new kind of authority – a prophetic authority – a sacrificial nobility that has nothing to do with governance and everything to do with a kind of other-worldly wisdom.  The paradox that Shakespeare develops and Peter Benson movingly portrays, is that Henry VI is nobler in deposition than in power and thereby resembles most the very monarch whom his grandfather deposed – Richard II.

And the two characters of Henry and Gloucester offer an indication of how this hopeless war will eventually resolve itself into a Tudor rose.  Henry becomes more and more saintly and Gloucester becomes more and more demonic, so that extremities of Good and Evil start to re-establish themselves as signposts enabling a reconciliatory path out of retributive chaos.

Roll on Richard III I say.


Here are my thoughts on a few other BBC Shakespeares.

Henry VI. Part Two:

Henry VI, Part One:

Here’s my review of the BBC Henry V:

Here are a few more blogs musing on this old BBC project…

BBC Henry IV, Part TWO:

But here’s my review of the BBC Henry IV Part ONE:

And the BBC Antony and Cleopatra:

And the Cymbeline:

Not to mention a somber but intensely homoerotic Coriolanus:

Here’s Comedy of Errors:

And… All’s Well That End’s Well:

Helen Mirren in the BBC As You Like It:

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