REVIEW: Henry VI at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Henry VI part 2

Henry VI part 2 - Credit: Gary Calton

The Globe on Tour presents Shakespeare’s three Henry Plays: Henry VI, The Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of The Duke of York at Cambridge Arts Theatre until Saturday September 21. Review by ANGELA SINGER.

MOST of us know little about King Henry VI. He would have preferred us to have known even less. He founded Eton and King’s College Cambridge (the idea was that the school would supply the students for the college).

He was a quiet man who loved study, hated war and wanted people to be nice to each other.

Harry, the son of warrior Henry V was like the son of a famous surgeon who couldn’t stand the sight of blood. But then he never knew his father. He became King at nine-months-old.

He was crowned King of England aged eight and King of France aged 11. England was governed by his quarrelsome and pernicious uncles and half-uncles and his authority in France was disputed. He was declared of age and tried to take an interest in government aged 16.

He suffered from bouts of mental illness. He was actually crowned King of England twice because for nine years he lost the crown. He held it the second time for only six months and he died in the Tower of London.

Graham Butler plays a memorable Henry. The character has no natural authority and doesn’t expect people to obey him but when they do, he is charmed. Sadly, Henry’s presence is as lightly sprinkled in the play as his influence was during his reign, the focus is all on the warring factions in England and the war between England and France but this production makes the most of every character so Henry is visible when he is not vocal.

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This is an adept and accessible presentation of a difficult play, one of Shakespeare’s earliest. These three history plays were the first of his to be performed. You miss the poetry and wisdom of the later plays. There are none of those moments where you think ‘Oh that’s where that came from’. I’m guessing that by the time he wrote Richard II – play number four - he had realised that it is the psychology of the king rather than the outcome of the battle which is most fascinating.

The plot is complicated, on stage as it was in life. It’s easy to get lost among the uncles as poor King Harry did. But there is plenty of argument, battle and bluster and poignancy, including the capture and death of Joan of Arc, played lightly by Beatriz Romilly as a country lass rather than a tom boy soldier.

Stirling performances make for a feisty and illuminating evening and certainly whet the appetite for the second and third plays to come. All three will be presented on Saturday, starting at noon. It is a privilege to see Shakespeare loved this much.