Henry VI: The War of the Roses
Through Aug. 7
Stephenson Amphitheatre, Raleigh
I wish I could just fast-forward through the rest of this election. So it’s understandable if Lucinda Danner Gainey, director of Bare Theatre and Raleigh Little Theatre’s coproduction of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, feels the same way about the War of the Roses.
Historians generally say the open conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York lasted from 1455 to 1485, with a few skirmishes and mopping-up actions outside those dates. It’s more apt, though, to observe that the power vacuum that destabilized the British monarchy began after Henry V’s death in 1422 turned his son, Henry VI, into England’s ruling monarch—as an infant, nine months old. Earnest internecine struggles for influence among the boy king’s advisors followed, and worsened over time.
Both real and Shakespearean history (the two are not always in agreement) show that Henry VI was a notably weak monarch who was never able to unite his fractious noblemen. That poses a clear problem for adaptors and directors like Gainey, who has deftly condensed some 11,000 lines of dialogue from three full-length, five-act Shakespeare plays into this ninety-minute spectacle at Stephenson Amphitheatre. What do you do when the title character isn’t the lead?
Gainey’s brisk adaptation gives the first two parts of Shakespeare’s trilogy a lick and a promise before devoting most of the evening to the abundant armed conflicts in Part Three. With the aid of fight choreographers Heather Strickland and Jason Bailey, Gainey essentializes these battles as vividly animated games of chess.
But, as in chess, the rules cause the King (Lachlan Watson) to be one of the weakest pieces on the board. The adapted script makes him little more than a human pinball, reacting more than acting as he’s bounced between the caprices and ambitions of Suffolk (a glam Maxine Eloi), Somerset (Rachel Pottern), and an increasingly restive York (Sean Brosnahan).
From early on, Henry is totally outflanked by his queen, the avenging Margaret (a relentless Rebecca Blum) and knights Clifford (Katie Barrett, on a gratifying post-punk psychotic rage-out) and Westmoreland (a lethal Leslie Castro). Even rooks like the bookish Exeter (Dustin Britt) are more clearly defined than the king.
With a work this abridged, perhaps it’s inevitable that we wind up more enmeshed in how these conflicts play out than why they must. The results suggest politics as seen through a Tarantino lens. It’s never more apparent than in the climactic scene where, after defeating him in battle, Margaret exacts her revenge on York. Repeatedly, she delays his imminent death in order to torment him with details of her grisly triumph. By the time Clifford delivers the final coup de grâce, we’ve tasted bloodlust in the audience as well.
What tops this? Only the gradual blossoming of the psychopath we’ll come to know, later on, as Richard III. Seth Blum is magnetic in the role. His deadpan asides and soliloquies to the audience unmask an implacable, shark-like intellect and ambition: a fifteenth-century Frank Underwood, minus the charming Southern accent.
In the final scene, the wheel of betrayal and intrigue remains in motion, as we return to a time we can’t fast-forward through. The early power vacuum—and a corresponding dramatic vacuum—in Shakespeare’s world have been filled. Still, as in our era, the end is not in sight.