Updated: Jun 4, 2022
My first trip to the RSC in Stratford-Upon Avon since the lockdown, and what a joy it was to be back! This time I was seeing Henry VI: Rebellion, the RSC continuing Shakespeare’s history plays following previous productions Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V.
Rebellion is pretty much Henry VI: Part 2 (with bits chopped and changed around), and tells the story of King Henry (Mark Quartley) as he struggles to maintain his hold over the kingdom. Henry was made King at just 9 months old, and since then the kingdom has been ruled by Lord Protector Humphrey of Gloucester (Richard Cant). The play opens with the marriage of Henry to Margaret of Anjou (Minnie Gale), who is having an affair with the Duke of Suffolk (Ben Hall). Margaret and Suffolk try to convince the King that, now he is of age, there is no need for the Lord Protector to continue in his role. Meanwhile, others are beginning to question the King’s right to the throne, including the Duke of York (Olver Alvin-Wilson) who believes he may have a claim to the throne himself.
This play feels very different from many other Shakespeare plays in that it is almost episodic. Whilst there is always the ongoing infighting between the various Dukes playing in the background, there are various detours along the way to tell other stories in the Kingdom. One such scene revolved around a peasant man who claims to have been cured of blindness by a miracle. The peasants were played by amateur actors, who have been cast as part of the RSC’s Shakespeare Nation project. The group I saw were from Nottingham, and had been working with local directors and practitioners to bring their scene to life.
Another scene involves a young armourer accusing his master of treason, since he overheard him discussing York’s right to the throne. The young armourer and his friends were played by the RSC’s Next Generation Act, which recruits school children from across the country. It is great to see the RSC continuing to give young and amateur actors the chance to experience the spotlight (have I ever mentioned I was involved in their Dream 16 production?) and I hope this will remain a key part of future production. Without reading the programme, you would never have known the difference between the professional and amateur cast.
The play is incredibly exciting throughout, and the complicated politics never feels too difficult to grasp. Occasionally, I got confused over characters and names, but I feel that is a problem with many Shakespeare plays – the first scene always feels overwhelming, but it becomes easier to understand as the play goes on. One of my favourite scenes involved Suffolk getting captured by pirates as he crosses the English channel. The pirates descended from the ceiling, and the fight scene that followed was both exhilarating and horrifying. I won’t spoil how the scene ends (although the play is around 400 years old) but you’ll be transfixed throughout.
The final section (the play is split into three parts, with two intervals) sees the introduction of Jack Cade (Aaron Sidwell), who has been employed by York to begin a rebellion (hence the name of the play!). Sidwell breathes fresh life into the play as Cade, meaning that, sitting down after the second interval, the play continues to feel fresh. In fact, never has a three hour production felt so quick! When the lights came up at the end, the only thought I was left with was “Already?!”
The play ends on something of a cliff-hanger, leading directly into Henry VI: Part 2, which is also currently playing at the RSC, under the name ‘Wars of the Roses’. I’m hoping to see that play in a few weeks’ time. If it’s anything as good as this production, I’m in for a treat.
‘Henry VI: Rebellion’ plays at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until the end of May.
Tom Morley, April 2022