BBC Complete Shakespeare: Henry the Sixth

Shakespeare’s first historical Tetralogy is almost unanimously regarded as weaker than his second. Though, ironically, it contains perhaps the most popular and acclaimed play in all of Shakespeare’s histories, Richard III. Its unpopularity primarily rests on the three parts of Henry VI, which many regard as amongst Shakespeare’s worst plays. They were certainly amongst his earliest, and the charge of immaturity frequently combines with the extremely controversial issue of authorship (many believe that they—especially Parts 1 and 3—were most likely collaborations) to make them quite unpopular, except amongst scholars who love trying to determine with some kind of certainty exactly how much Shakespeare is actually responsible for them. Given their unpopularity, it’s not surprising there haven’t been many adaptations. We should probably be thankful, then, that this fine and underrated trilogy has been given such a faithful, exuberant, and, likely, definitive adaptation as part of the BBC’s Complete Shakespeare series.

For those who don’t know, Shakespeare’s War of the Roses tetralogy documents and dramatizes the events after Henry V’s death, including the famous War of the Roses (between the houses of Lancaster York) who argued and warred over whom should rightfully, by birth, have the throne. Henry VI (Peter Benson) lucklessly inherits the throne at a young age at the death of his father, with Duke of Gloucester (David Burke) becoming the Lord Protector over the realm. Part I concerns Henry VI’s coming of age, in which his young rule results in England losing French territories won during the Henry V’s reign, thanks to the leadership of Joan of Arc (aka, Joan la Pucelle, played by Brenda Blethlyn). Meanwhile, Cardinal Beaufort (Frank Middlemass) is feuding with Gloucester, while Lord Talbot (Trevor Peacock) bravely leads England against the French to regain the territories, and the Duke of York (Bernard Hill) and Earl of Somerset (Brian Deacon) draw the lines in the sand over their claim to the crown. Part II is frequently considered the best of the trilogy, and it’s certainly the most character-driven as Margaret (Julia Foster) becomes queen to Henry VI.

Part II documents the escalading civil tumult within the court, as Margaret begins gaining power for herself and influencing those in the court to turn against the noble Gloucester so Henry won’t be under his wing. After Gloucester is murdered, the court falls into disrepair and constant civil war as everyone chooses sides either to remain loyal to Henry or join with York. If Part II shifted the focus to the characters, then Part III turns its attention to the bloody wars themselves. It’s notorious for containing the most battles in any Shakespeare play, and it’s certainly a wild ride as Henry is deposed, only to briefly reclaim the crown, only to be deposed again at the hands of York and his scheming sons, especially the deceitful, and increasingly ambitious Richard (Ron Cook).

The first word that comes to my mind when contemplating these plays is “immense”. They’re historical tragedies on a grand scale, and no matter Shakespeare’s level of involvement, it’s hard not to become engrossed in the constant scheming and twists of fate and chance. Shakespeare’s penchant for crafting memorable characters is already here and, indeed, the Henrys seem to contain apparent analogs to many of Shakespeare’s later works. Queen Margaret is like a more relentless and active version of Lady Macbeth, though without the nuances. Even in the enormous cast, Julia Foster sets herself apart playing of Shakespeare’s greatest bitches. Margaret is absolutely ruthless, and is a deliciously fun villain to watch, as she can emotionally explode one minute, pleading to Henry, and play the ice cold executioner the next.

In truth, though, it’s hard to imagine a better assembled cast. Peter Benson takes some getting used to as Henry VI, primarily since we have to keep in mind he’s playing much younger than the middle-aged man he actually is. Critics have often said Henry is hard to sympathize with, because he’s so inactive, impotent, and more inclined to God and peace instead of the Machiavellian machinations of the court. In truth, I find him perhaps the most sympathetic and wise character in the play, revealing that even at the highest levels of society, man is little more than a selfish beast. His soliloquy in Part III, 2.5, especially from:

“Would I were dead! if God’s good will were so;
For what is in this world but grief and woe?”

Is one of the most moving moments of all three plays, precisely because it stands in such peaceful contrast to the destructive war raging around him. Benson ultimately brings a great sensitivity to the part, thoroughly convincing us that he’s the devoted man of faith, rather than war.

David Burke is a solid Gloucester, getting the most out of perhaps the most noble character in the plays. Frank Middlemass is a fittingly slimy Cardinal, and his death scene is one of the highlights in the production. Bernard Hill isn’t the most vital York, but he does bring a somewhat subdued nuance to the role. Trevor Peacock is outstanding as the dwarf-like warrior Talbot, and he adds a great energy to much-maligned first part. His John Cade is less successful if only because the character is less interesting. Ron Cook is a bit disappointing as Richard, and his character is important since his increasing isolation and ambition is what sets up his central role in Richard III. Given the huge cast, it’s impossible to go through them all, but suffice it to say that this is strong, well-acted Shakespeare from top-to-bottom.

The production is typical of the BBC Complete series in that it’s minimal. There is only one set that’s comprised of what looks like a children’s playground. However, they make interesting use of it as its vibrant colors in Part I are nowhere to be found in the bleakness of Part II, and by Part III there’s almost nothing left of the disintegrated ruins. It’s only a bit annoying that we’re taxed with imagining that the same bland set represents everything from a king’s palace to a field of battle, but I often remind myself that this is Shakespeare at its purest. The utmost emphasis is placed on the text, the language, the acting, and the drama, rather than the cinematic (or even theatrical) quality. In that sense, the adaptations are a sterling success.

It’s likely that not many will want to spend over ten-hours with three low-rent, quasi-cinematic adaptations of what are traditionally considered amongst Shakespeare’s worst plays, but for lovers of Shakespeare, good drama, and great acting, there are a lot of rewards for those who do so. What I enjoyed most was observing the roots of Shakespeare as a dramatist, especially his already-apparent talent for crafting memorable, complex, and vibrantly diverse characters. The language frequently made even me aware of the likelihood that even a great deal wasn’t written by him, but the glimmers of genius that Part II reaches (especially) makes me inclined to take the good with the bad and celebrate the BBC’s decision to do all three separately, instead of condensing them into one (or two) parts.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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