Review: Henry VI Parts I, II, and III; Richard III

By John Nathan, May 16, 2008

Roundhouse, London NW1

“I want to get the complete set of stickers,” said the man queuing for a pint of lager in the Roundhouse’s foyer. You get no sticker for each of Shakespeare’s eight history plays, but he makes the point well. This rare RSC eight-play cycle, which starts with Jonathan Slinger’s camp-as-Christmas Richard II and ends with his chillingly psychotic Richard III, leaves you with a hugely satisfying sense of completion.

There are moments when the stamina flags. But not for long. Michael Boyd’s productions are full of invention and gravity-defying moments. His achievement is in producing Shakespeare for both purists and a generation hungry for spectacle. The subtlety of the earlier Henry IV plays is conspicuous by its absence in the Henry VI trilogy. The narrative is driven almost entirely by war. It is Keith Bartlett’s one-eyed Talbot, a battle-hardened dog of war, versus Katy Stephens’s scary Joan. In the trilogy’s brutal nine hours, Chuk Iwuji’s gentle Henry VI represents a rare absence of malice — a wide-eyed adolescent who is appalled at the warfare between the English houses of Lancaster and York; between Geoffrey Freshwater’s Bishop of Winchester — a coronary waiting to happen — and Richard Cordery’s raging Gloucester; and between Nicholas Asbury’s Somerset and Clive Wood’s Richard Plantagenet, whose rise leads to his crippled son Richard — a one-man killing machine — murdering his way to the throne. In the coronation scene, the procession includes, to his delight, the ghosts of all those he slaughtered. And I will never forget Slinger’s Richard holding his baby nephew and in a coochy-coo voice warning the infant of the harm he intends. Notch up the complete set while you can. (Tel: 0844 482 8008)

Last updated: 11:01am, May 20 2008