Review - Henry VI at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Netflix has just released the third series of The Crown for streaming, chronicling the reign of our current monarch Elizabeth II. But Shakespeare's own version of the box set of royal history - and those who seized the regal reigns from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries - is a series of ten plays.
Shakespeare's Globe now conclude their abbreviated journey through some of these plays by opening their 2019/20 season with new productions of Henry VI (an artfully condensed version of the two separate parts of Henry VI into one three-and-a-quarter hour play) and Richard III. Unlike the opening trilogy of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V that played in the outdoors main house earlier this year, these productions are playing in the much more intimate, indoors Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
The first thing to say is that watching in the sepulchral gloom of a theatre lit only by candlelight and the occasional intrusion of controlled electric lighting states from the vestibule that runs around the back of the auditorium is that it is at once challenging and exhilarating to do so. You can't always make out actors' faces, especially when the candelabra are brought to stage level; but there's a sense of intimacy, intensity and connection that makes you lean into the plays in a way that you don't necessarily when watching in the larger and more distracting outdoor space across the courtyard.
But the second thing to say is an admission: though the benches are cushioned in the Wanamaker as they are not in the Globe itself, the seating still makes presents quite a physical challenge - particularly for those like me with severely compromised backs. So I'm afraid I bowed out of staying on for Richard III after a press matinee of Henry VI.
Nevertheless, though they share a cast of the same ten actors who are called the Globe Ensemble, and as fascinating as it might be to seem them tackling different characters, they are distinct, stand-alone shows. So I had a complete experience even though I only saw Henry IV.
This bloody, tangled tale of royal intrigue and succession management is given a rousing, churning momentum in a production that is co-directed by Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian. As usual at the Globe, there's some playing to the gallery (this being the Wanamaker, there are no groundlings), and indeed there's some playing in the gallery (invisible from where I was sitting). At other times action spills into the auditorium, too.
The casting at times is gender-blind - Queen Margaret is tenderly taken by Steffan Donnelly, while Leaphia Darko makes credible work of Salisbury, Northumberland and Rutland. Binding it together is Jonathan Broadbent's spellbinding performance in the title role. Whether as a classical actor, a contemporary one or a musical star, he shares with Simon Russell Beale an ability to make his presence felt with the lyrical warmth of his voice and his tender vulnerability.
This is a gripping Shakespeare epic, even if the seating sometimes makes it gruelling, too.
Henry VI s at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse to 26th January 2020.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner
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