Although chronologically Part Two of Henry VI follows events dramatised by Part One, contemporary evidence suggests Part One was written after Parts Two and Three. So Part Two marked Shakespeare’s debut in the genre of secular dramatic history he largely invented himself. The play’s experimental nature explains its three different templates: a tragedy of court intrigue centred on Humphrey Duke of Gloucester and his wife Eleanor (Acts 1-3); the free-wheeling comic-serious popular rebellion of Jack Cade (Act 4); and the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses between Lancastrians and Yorkists in the First Battle of St Albans (Act 5). To its credit, Adonis Filipi’s National Theatre of Albania’s production did not attempt to flatten this diversity but used its strongest actors to give each phase a distinct presentational mode and tone.
Eleanor’s and Humphrey’s downfalls have an air of doomed inevitability that this production conveyed through formalised presentation. Body language was physically restrained, and actors’ facial reactions when not speaking tended to be inscrutable. Henry VI (Indrit Çobani) was appropriately a bit of an exception. His visible passions underlined his conflicted inability to impose his authority on his subversive lords. Margaret of Anjou (Emira Hysaj), on the other hand, was coolly statuesque. When she and her banished lover Suffolk parted, their lips came close but did not touch, suggesting their affair was non-sexual. It wasn’t enduring either (her scene cradling Suffolk’s head was cut), since Margaret later expressed silent interest in a macho Lancastrian substitute, Somerset.
These presentational choices created a generally stiff performance by today’s standards and meant the drama was carried by spoken text, making it more challenging for non-Albanian speakers. But performances by Gloucester (Kristaq Skrami) and Eleanor (Yllka Mujo) showed that a ‘neo-classical’ sensibility was not simply bloodless. In the opening scene Gloucester stifled his anger at hearing the humiliating terms of Henry’s marriage to Margaret. Aided by a commanding voice, he remained steely and measured in response to outlandish accusations by Margaret, Somerset, Suffolk, and Winchester seeking his death to advance their private agendas. Eleanor was especially effective in expressing a sense of tragic decorum. Her banishment for necromancy evoked stoicism rather than pathos. Wearing a flowing white gown, she walked with grave dignity down the stage and centre steps into the yard. There Globe spectators spontaneously collaborated with the production’s courtly sensibility by respectfully opening a lane for her to exit at an unbroken, self-possessed pace, in contrast to the cruel ridicule of the crowd that Eleanor describes at the beginning of the scene.
Jack Cade (Bujar Asqeriu) burst this restraint with broad comic bluster and narcissistic appeals to the audience to chant his name. When he invoked the utopian language of freedom and equality, he tossed out small oranges to ragged followers (supplied by his puppetmaster York?) suggestive of huckstering demagoguery. One orange went to a Blind Woman who was left to wander precariously when the crowd went off to savage the gentry. When Henry’s agent Lord Clifford arrived to persuade them to surrender to the king, the Blind Woman listened carefully and led the crowd’s reversal against Cade. So in the end the politics of popular protest went nowhere.
Trimming of the original text meant that Cade’s compressed narrative shifted quickly into the play’s civil war phase, dominated by a splendidly forceful and splenetic Duke of York (Vasjan Lami) and his lame brat of a son, Richard (Roland Saro, who earlier played a cleaver-sharpening Dick Butcher). But the concluding battle of St Albans was represented anti-heroically in great-coated choreography rather than by epic combat. A final ambiguous touch came by way of an up-for-grabs empty throne, rolled centre stage on hidden casters as a wordless epilogue. Driven by a sharp breeze on the afternoon I attended, it resumed rolling a bit further in a wandering arc.
University Research Professor, Department of English
University of New Brunswick