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“What she says… I’ll confirm.” Age of Kings, Episode 9.

September 17, 2020

Ever since I started watching Age of Kings, I’ve been able to say that these productions are, on the whole, superior to the versions of these plays presented as part of the grand 1978-1985 Shakespeare series.

As we reach the Wars of the Roses tetralogy, this can no longer be said.

This is because these 1980s versions, directed by Jane Howell, represent the most imaginative stagings of Shakespeare in the whole series. (Generally speaking as far as this 1980s project is concerned, the less canonical the play – the less inhibited the production.) Howell offers a Brechtian staging with only one set – an adventure playground which becomes more and more dishevelled and dangerous looking as the plays continue, until by the time of the Battle of Bosworth – it’s become the sort of playground that your offspring is likely to injure themselves at – or at least require a tetanus shot following an encounter with a rusty nail.

I’ve some thoughts on those 1980s productions incidentally…

This episode from Age of Kings – a truncated version of Henry VI Part One, is, far less “stagy” than Howell’s.. But then again – I like “stagy”. Oddly enough, Talbot (played with a Tamberlaine-ish swagger by Trevor Peacock in the Howell version) is completely absent from this 1960 adaptation despite being the dominant character in the play – the character who is endlessly talked about even when he’s not on stage.

The Henry VI plays aren’t as good as the Henry IV plays. I mean, I know it’s obvious, but it has to be said. They just aren’t. And as a result, there’s a wholly legitimate tendency to encourage a more cartoonish style of acting when playing the Henry VI plays. Robert Lang, for example, plays the villainous Bishop of Winchester with a melodramatic sneer that suggests that the constant temptation to succumb to diabolical laughter is only barely repressed. Then there’s Henry himself – the quintessence of slappable sanctity as depicted by Terry Scully. He’s what we used to call a “drip”. You want to shake him very hard more than you want to sympathise with his impossible predicaments.

As the Dauphin, Jerome Willis plays a delicious letch. “Devoted” to Joan, his tongue is hanging out of his mouth and he never loses an opportunity to cop a feel. His lack of agency is demonstrated by the delicious pause in the middle of a line reacting to a stirring speech from Joan. “What she says… I’ll confirm” the first three words of which sound almost lazily twenty-first century.

But this production actually belongs to Eileen Atkins and Mary Morris. Eileen Atkins is absolutely terrifying as Joan – a lunatic so wide eyed that her eyes actually seem too big for her head. We are treated to some Germany expressionist camera work worthy of F. W. Murnau while she tries to call the voices in her head to some kind of order. Her final protestations are screamed while she is actually being tied to the stake and smoke is rising. I’m not sure that anything more horrific than this was ever staged on television in Britain in 1960.

Mary Morris is equally compelling as Margaret of Anjou, wooed by Suffolk ostensibly for the young King Henry but actually for himself. Her peculiarly beautiful yet angular features project the idea of someone who knows something important that nobody else on stage has a clue about.

Twenty years later, Mary Morris would appear as a prophetess in the trippiest Doctor Who adventure of the Peter Davison era – Kinda.

Let red and white roses be plucked. More than anything I find myself looking forward to Mary Morris as Margaret triumphing over the defeated Richard of York.

Yes I will enjoy that quite a bit. I feel certain.

I have some thoughts about previous episodes of Age of Kings…

Episode One

Episode Two

Episode Three

Episode Four

Episode Five

Episode Six

Episode Seven

Episode Eight

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