30 years of Shakespeare! And if that were not enough, St. Louis Shakespeare this year has completed the canon, including the questionable and hardly ever performed Edward III. And the last play to complete the cycle - Henry VI, parts 1, 2 and 3! This series of 3 plays is also not often performed in the US. This is not too terribly surprising considering that the history that is covered is very foreign to most Americans, not to mention the length. A company like St. Louis Shakespeare only does 3 to 4 plays a year and to mount all three parts would not be very prudent. So, what do to? Well, combine the plays into a single evening of theater, of course! And so I had the great pleasure of experiencing this version of Henry VI, all 3 parts combined into one play. Frankly it made for a long evening, 3 and a half hours with two intermissions. It also turns out to be a bit of a slog through the 50 years of the reign of Henry VI in which there are endless battles, political posturing and betrayal all while the kindly, peace-loving and religious Henry VI completely looses control and falls apart. I cannot criticize the company for deciding to do these 3 plays as one, but I think it would have been better to make it into two plays, as many scenes had to be very shortened and important characters dropped completely (like John of Bedford, Henry V’s practical and competent brother who was the regent of France). It made it a little hard to follow the myriad historical events, and I have an advantage as I have spent a lot of time studying all of that. (Note - The "Hollow Crown" series of the BBC has announced they will in fact be filming Henry VI as two parts. The cast will include Benedict Cumberbach as Richard III).
However, better one play than none. Perhaps listing the cast of characters in order of appearance (and thus in historical order) or including a list of events covered in the program might have helped. But be that as it may, despite the operatic scope of this version it was a delight and a joy to get to see this work performed on the stage. I had seen it once before in a live stream from the Barnet battlefield where the Globe Theater on tour was performing all three plays back to back – a 7 hour marathon in the pouring rain! Watching last night I was reminded that this (these?) play(s) include some of Shakespeare’s most powerful and beautiful scenes and also some most interesting characters. The “paper crown” scene is an incredibly powerful scene, Young Clifford’s murder of Edmund Rutland, the trial and punishment of the Duchess of Gloucester and then the amazing scene where Shakespeare juxtaposes a son who has killed his father and a father who has killed his son in the idiotic violence of the War of Roses are scenes that are unique and emotionally gripping. And not only that but how often do we hear actresses complain (justifiably) about the dearth of good female roles in Shakespeare. Well, they should immediately start advocating for more performances of the Henry VI cycle which contains several incredible women: Joan of Arc (Joan la Pucelle), Eleanor, The Duchess of Gloucester and the tour de force role of Margaret of Anjou along with several interesting smaller roles: Elizabeth Woodville (here known as Lady Gray) and Margret Jourdain the Medium.
Three and a half hours of Shakespeare history could have easily become interminable if it weren’t for the inventive and fast paced production and the excellent acting. I really enjoyed this performance and thought the cast did a great job, across the board. They are, I believe, a mixture of students, amateurs and semi-pros (if I am wrong about that I apologize) – but there was nothing amateurish about this performance. The fighting was well practiced and effective and the characterizations very profound from the leading characters even extending to some of the smaller roles. Shannon Lampkin, for example, was very effective as the medium Margret Jourdain, quite beguiling as Lady Gray and then pathetic as the palsied Lord Say. I cannot possibly name everyone, but I hate to leave anyone out so let me say that I felt that there was nary a weak link in the cast. There were standouts though and at the top of the list has to be Jeff Lloyd who took on the role of King Henry VI, a man who was as unsuited for kingship as any in the history of England. By the end, when Henry has unraveled and witnesses the above mentioned scene between the son and father Jeff’s emotional engagement was very moving. Maggie Winniger was quite effective as the almost equally unhinged Margaret of Anjou - her complete lack of empathy at the bloody evidence of the murder of the child Rutland, her pathological delight in cruelly taunting York in the paper crown scene and then her bitter despair as she is forced to watch her own son murdered before her eyes were some of the most powerful scenes in this production.
I also really enjoyed the work of Tim Callahan as Talbot and the boys Alex Bollini and Dan Haller who played several different roles. The drive for vengeance of the Young Clifford of Michael Pierce and the unreasonable hate and power lust of Maxwell Knocke were also notable. Katie Warnusz-Steckel was outstanding as Joan la Pucelle as Shakespeare gives us a rather questionable character of dubious motivation and morality – of course, considering who he was writing for. It is in this character that Shakespeare drifts far afield of actual historical fact. Oh, along with his depiction of Richard, Duke of Gloucester – the future Richard III – who becomes a complete villain in this play and the following Richard III – also not supported by historical fact. But who cares, it makes for great theater. Andrew Bayer almost made me wish they had continued into Richard III - ah, almost – it was 11:30 PM by then and I had an hour and a half drive home. But he captured wonderfully the evil of this Shakespearean creation. And I enjoyed his delivering the opening sentence of the Richard III – “Now is the winter of our discontent.” It worked well to wrap up the long evening and point us ahead.
I have to mention the creative casting of Teresa Doggett as the Earl of Warwick, the Kingmaker. At first, before the play began I wondered if they were going to make the character a woman, which I don’t think would have worked. No, she played the character as male and she was outstanding. I noticed at first because of the pitch of her voice, but after about 3 minutes I completely forgot and it no longer mattered. She was very effective in this role.
One little quibble – I am not sure why the director chose to keep the Bishop of Winchester (played very effectively by Charles Heuvelman) in his liturgical robes for the duration of his extensive role. But I found that distracting. It was certainly appropriate for scene 1 at the funeral of Henry V, but he should have changed to a cardinal’s cassock. No cleric goes around wearing liturgical vestments all the time, they are only worn during worship and liturgical functions. I should also mention the object of the good Bishop's hate: Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Henry Bolingbrook and brother to Henry Monmouth, played wonderfully by Jared Sanz-Agero. I loved his scenes with Margeau Baue Steinau, they were very moving and beautifully performed.
To conclude I want to say that I really enjoyed this performance. Well done to all the cast and I will be anxious to see where you go now in the next 30 years!