National Theatre Bitola, director John Blondell

Henry VI Part Three depicts the brutality and suffering of civil war as a series of battles and death scenes, punctuated by blasted or ironised hopes of peace. In less imaginative productions the fighting and dying begin to look and sound the same. Inspired ones, such as John’s Blondell’s National Theatre of Bitola production in Macedonian, creatively differentiate these moments as culturally specific but always sadly contemporary human calamities.

Part Three stretches any company’s resources by calling for four major battles. These represent the late-medieval Wars of the Roses, human shards of which are still being dug up today. Blondell stylised each battle with both universal and local details. In the first (Wakefield) slow-motion soldiers wielded long wooden pikes like ancient hunters sticking wild pigs, while Clifford viciously sliced the throat of York’s youngest son Rutland with a red-gloved hand. During the second battle (Towton) a trio of girlish Fates sang an upbeat folksong while muscle-shirted thugs mimed killing-field atrocities. The third battle (Barnet) juxtaposed the ‘kingmaker’ Warwick, disrobed in a Dance of Death, with black-hoodied killers and victims swapping roles in rapid execution scenes. They then sang a chorus-line lament until one-by-one, imaginary bullets to their heads, the final voice was silenced. Soldiers danced around an exhilarated Queen Margaret for the final battle (Tewkesbury) before shoving her downstage to watch the York brothers slaughter her son. Throughout these battles not a single broadsword or suit of chainmail appeared.

These sharply paced ensemble-narratives alternated with skilfully nuanced individual performances. Lancastrian King Henry (Petar Gorko) signalled his conflicted rejection of royal authority by contemplating his removed crown in the opening stand-off with the Yorkists. His Towton-field vision of symbiotic natural and human creation, shadowed by choric grief for doomed Fathers and Sons, exploded into angry frustration when Margaret (Gabriela Petrushevska) entered to disturb his pacifist reverie and he briefly tore at her throat.

Margaret’s tragedy of thirsting vengeance unfolded with her wardrobe. Wearing red high heels and a tailored blue uniform, she mimed lapping up blood with her hand during Rutland’s death, sending the first of many deliberately mixed signals about women in power in this production. She veiled her thirst socially in the amusing scene at the French court. Sporting a fashionable red top, she downed several glasses of vodka while pleading for King Lewis’s support to restore her deposed husband. As she became more tottery, Lewis (Kristina Hristova Nikolova, one of several cross-castings) dallied with the lips of a suddenly vulnerable but booze-befuddled Prince Edward (Nikolche Projchevshi). The French Farce swerved further when Warwick arrived to broker an arranged marriage between a fizzy Lady Bona (Valentina Gramosli, later doubling as Lady Grey) and the new Yorkist King Edward. Margaret miraculously sobered up as news of Edward’s marriage to Lady Grey made her and an enraged Warwick instant friends. Prince Edward awoke from his alcoholic stupor to find himself betrothed to Warwick’s daughter.

Learning later of Warwick’s death (a scattering of red petals), Margaret’s deep desires were fully revealed through a blazing scarlet dress as she licked her wrists in anticipation of red-handed revenge at Tewkesbury. She had ignored York’s agonised curses (Boris Chorevski) after she taunted him with a cloth dipped in his son’s blood. Her devastated lament for her murdered son was nonetheless deeply moving, if not sympathetic. The beautifully sad music which accompanied her was typical of greater Macedonian detailing in the play’s second half. In a thrilling reversal, the dying Warwick (Sonja Mihajlova) transformed the inward-looking focus of Shakespeare’s contempt-for-ambition speech into the resentment of a modern Balkans soldier addressing the audience: ‘this death isn’t just mine, it’s yours too’, she seemed to say, ‘you are also responsible for these wars!’, before exiting defiantly.

At about 6’4” Edward (Ognen Drangovski) strutted around the stage like an overgrown toy-soldier. After bluntly propositioning the widow Lady Grey, ruttishness initially compounded his political dimwittedness. By contrast, his compact and loyally deceitful brother Richard of Gloucester (Martin Mirchevski) furiously bobbed and limped. When he revealed his fratricidal ambitions in mid-play soliloquy, the white heat of his psychopathic anger needed no translation. It culminated in a full-frontal assault on a shakily righteous Henry via a jar full of blood thrown twice at the king’s white nightgown.

The socially versatile Lady Grey was the capstone of this exuberantly inventive production. Normally her principled resistance to Edward’s advances turns into defensive reserve after she becomes Queen Elizabeth. But here her unabashed sexuality as Edward’s consort gave him the self-confidence to throw off his temporary un-kinging by Warwick and thump himself back into power with the help of a regimental drum. Queen Elizabeth was next seen heaving into a bucket with morning sickness. News of Edward’s capture shifted her priorities to saving her unborn child by fleeing to France. She shifted roles again in the final ironic scene of Yorkist triumph. In contrast to Edward’s red boots, she was spotlessly dressed in white, cradling a white rose on a pillow, and tendering it a lullaby. It was perhaps the only moment of real innocence in the still unravelling yarn of blood and death.

Randall Martin 
University Research Professor, Department of English
University of New Brunswick