Shakespeare’s histories are often put on the back burner while his comedies and tragedies dominate the public’s attention and interest. This is the very attitude that I once had. “English history?” I would think to myself. “Bah. Give me fairies. Give me witches. Give me thirteen-year-old kids pillow-talking and stabbing themselves to death within three days of having met each other.” The thought of Shakespeare’s histories seemed, well, kind of like a history lesson, and not exactly the emotionally-charged, tragically moving and beautifully written plays that Shakespeare is famous for.
Boy, was I ever wrong. Players’ Theatre’s production of King Henry VI: The Rise of York is so much more than a simple chronicle of English history. Henry VI draws the audience in right from its emotional opening scene, and keeps hold of them through to its chilling conclusion. There is so much going on at the levels of characters, setting, politics, and speech that it is easy to become lost in the world of the play, and absorbed into the enthralling chaos that was medieval England. To use the words of director Stuart Wright, “This here is a Shakespearean variety show: power-hungry dukes, mincing courtiers, man-eating queens, patriotic pirates, envy, misery, seduction, brotherhood, fun, and blood.” In short, Henry VI can be described in a single word: epic.
Having said that, the production and conception of such a play surely rivalled the achievement of the narrative scope. Henry VI was written in three parts, resulting in three lengthy plays that are most enjoyable together. Stuart Wright and co-director Fraser Dickson took on the arduous task of adapting these three plays into a single concise, comprehensible whole. Think The Lord of the Rings trilogy condensed into a single, three-hour event. (This did in fact happen to disastrous effect: R.I.P. Toronto’s least happy musical.) Wright notes, “It took months, as I was faced with the challenge of paring ten hours of Shakespeare down to three and crafting a stageable piece of theatre.” Wright and Dickson were so attentive in preserving the story’s main arcs and themes in their adaptation, that the scene transitions and sequences of events could almost pass as Shakespeare’s original work.
While Wright’s adaptation is itself an accomplishment, the direction of such an ambitious play is surely no easy task. The story is brought to life in its historical 15th century setting, with complex use of props, lighting and stage space. Due to its scale and large cast, it sometimes feels as though Henry VI is bursting out of the confines of the modestly sized Player’s Theatre. This sometimes results in poor viewing, but for the most part Wright makes good use of the space and achieves quite masterful visual effects. In between managing the direction, cast, and staging, he even manages to make a brief but deliciously impressive cameo as France’s King Louis VI.
Which brings me to the acting. Oh, the acting. In all sincerity, Henry VI is the best cast and best acted show that I have seen at McGill, and one of the best acted adaptations of Shakespeare that I have ever seen (which is saying a lot, since McGill has some extraordinary theatrical talent, and since I grew up on a yearly dose of Stratford’s offerings). It is evident that each member of the cast put an exorbitant number of hours into their roles, delivering every line with emotion and sincerity. It seems almost unfair to mention one actor and not another, since every cast member is remarkable in the mere feat of taking on a Shakespearean role, but certain performances were particularly notable.
Rowan Spencer is perfect in the play’s title role. He portrayed the feeble, reluctant king not with grandeur and exuberance, but rather teeming uncertainty – playing up the character’s subtleties but fearlessly bursting with emotion at the right dramatic moments. Annie MacKay dominates the stage as Queen Margaret, showcasing a diverse range of personalities from sexy temptress to diabolical villain to tragic mother. Fraser Dickson’s portrayal of the Duke of Gloucester, the future king Richard III, evolves from a machismo-fuelled executioner to a cunningly wicked schemer in the play’s second half, penetrating the audience with a sense of pure evil and malice. The cast functions as a coherent whole, delivering their roles with so much passion and care that many of them could legitimately be imagined on stage in Stratford a few years down the road.
In the end, King Henry VI: The Rise of York is a brilliant example of the talent residing in McGill’s theatre community. Wright’s adaptation makes for a marvellous show that is consistent and understandable, with no narrative gaps or sense that something was missing. Henry VI will prove to you that, in the hand of Shakespeare, history is as sexy, funny, bloody and disturbing as anything else he wrote.
King Henry VI: The Rise of York plays through February 20 at Players’ Theatre. For showtimes, visit ssmu.mcgill.ca/players/