Theatre review: Henry VI – an entertaining continuation of this bloody medieval soap opera

When we last left the Kings, Henry V had just defeated the French at Agincourt and married the French princess, Catherine of Valois.  Fast-forward seven years, with his unexpected death, Henry’s only son succeeds him to the throne.  It is here where director Christopher Weddell picks up our story as the young King Henry VI continues the intrigue, murders, illicit affairs and political power struggles that have become synonymous with Bard on Beach’s bloody good medieval soap opera.

The penultimate show in Bard on the Beach’s history cycle, Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses is the distillation of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts I, II & III into a single narrative, laying the groundwork for the final piece, Richard III, which opens on July 18.

In combining the Henry VI trilogy into a single show, director Christopher Weddell successfully takes us through the struggles between the houses of York and Lancaster and a nation that is on the verge of rebellion.  A massive undertaking, Weddell manages to take the trilogy, with its 79 scenes, 75 characters and 75,000 words, and present it in a logical and entertaining 2 1/2 hours (including intermission).  While some pre-reading will definitely help – get there early to read the story and director’s notes in the show’s program – Weddell provides a real clarity to this intricate story.

There were a number of stand-out performances last night led by Josue Laboucane in the title role.  Laboucane brought such a believable naivety to the role that I actually found myself shaking my head a number of times at his ignorance to what was happening around him.  Nicola Lipman, in her Bard on the Beach debut, gives us a delightfully dour Lady Exeter who so fully embraced her character from her first scene and Gerry Mackay gave such power to Gloucester that he commanded our attention each time he took to the stage.  Linda Quibell gives a gorgeous balance of seductress and power-hungry bitch as Queen Margaret and Bob Frazer, completely transformed, gives us a peek into the Machiavellian Richard III, complete with hunchback, club foot and even more gruesome grin.

Along with such seasoned actors as Lipman and Mackay, plus Scott Bellis and Allan Morgan, director Weddell has also opened up this production to a new generation of Shakespearean actor including a number of recent Studio 58 graduates (Melissa Dionisio, Benjamin Elliott, Dustin Freeland) who I have no doubt we will soon see in meatier roles on the Bard on the Beach stages.

A battle scene from Bard on the Beach's Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses.  Photo by David Blue.
A battle scene from the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production of Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses. Photo by David Blue.

But where director Weddell has managed to take this immense tale and achieved such clarity in its story, some of that clarity was diminshed from a number of design elements including Sheila White’s costumes and some of the choices made by set designer Pam Johnson.  Where White and Johnson solidly supported the similarly grand Falstaff last year with a common vision, that vision seemed to be missing here.  Described as “modern-medieval haute couture”, White has combined so many different styles, textures and fabrics into her costumes that it at times felt confused and at odds with Weddell’s storytelling.  Interjecting her own modern elements, Johnson added to that lack of cohesiveness.

Despite some production elements that do not quite live up to the story, Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses is a solidly entertaining continuation of Shakespeare’s sweeping story and sufficiently satisfied my ongoing addiction to this summertime guilty pleasure.

4 Out of 5 Stars Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses

By William Shakespeare.  Directed by Christopher Weddell.  A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production.  On stage at the Bard on the Beach Studio Stage through September 24, 2011.  Visit http://www.bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.

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