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30 | September 24, 2013 | | Cambridge News

It’s brash, bloody and giddily good ELLA WALKER reviews Henry VI: The Houses of York and Lancaster, Cambridge Arts Theatre


RAHAM Butler, AKA The Globe’s Henry VI, told me that Part II of Shakespeare’s trilogy is his favourite: “It’s so anarchic and strange, it’s almost absurdist. It’s like [Shakespeare] strung loads of different scenes, loads of different ideas and just drove them all in, and somehow they’ve all melded together and made a complete thing.” You can definitely see what he means. The first 15-20 minutes of Nick Bagnall’s stripped back production were spent trying to decipher the different characters, their names, their titles, their allegiances, and settling on which bit of history we’d been thrown into. However, almost as soon as you’d mapped out what was going on in your mind, characters started toppling down dead. That makes it sound confusing, but in fact it’s pacey, complex and, once you’ve got a handle on who is who, who loves who and who hates who, it’s fiery, tense and rattles along with grit and vibrancy – more so than the BBC’s The White Queen (which picks up roughly where Part II ends). It starts with the arrival of Queen Margaret, full skirted and bold, ready to marry Henry in return for territory in France, throwing the English peers into grumbling disarray. As Margaret gathers around her a core of supporters, fawning over Suffolk, and dismissing her too-pious husband, court fractures and splits with threats; treason spreads angrily like red wine on white cloth. There is much hithering and thithering, the King flees multiple times, sides are switched, swords are drawn, claims to the crown flare and sizzle out as black magic bubbles, heads are beheaded and women banished. It’s dark, gory and tautly staged but there are

crackles of humour too. The costumes – worn leathers and lashed boots for the men and unnatural hues of purple and ruby red for royalty – are impressively wrought, the only flashes of colour and softened texture on a stark stage rigged with rickety metal ladders and scaffolding that cages the actors in. The second act opens with the bawdy, murderous rebel Jack Cade, sneering at the audience, his merry band of cutthroat followers yelling and guffawing from throughout the auditorium. At this point the play begins to race, bloodied heads roll, flashing knives open jugulars and the cast grow raucous. Roger Evans is magnificent as the strutting, bellowing Cade, drawing wimpers and laughs in equal measure, while Butler nails pious, pleading and innocent as the tugged and torn Henry, bending to the will of his wife and peers, despite a desire for love and peace. Beatriz Romilly takes bitterness and gall to sharp, clear heights as the banished Duchess of Gloucester and you’ll be pleased to hear Richard III does make a loping, awkward appearance (cue whispering from the audience). It’s brash, bloody and giddily good – as long as you can get straight what is actually going on. l On a side not, this was my first visit to the Arts Theatre since its revamp. Although the box office itself is barely more than a cupboard, the new foyer is now ever so swish. Think white walls, huge glass doors and carpet so new and plush it swivels your feet as you walk. And the wine glasses (yesterday was their first outing), sit heavily, decadently in your hand. Not too shabby at all. ella.walker

Henry vi review  

Henry VI at Cambridge Arts Theatre