Review: Henry VI Part One: Harry the Sixth (Theatre Royal, Brighton, as part of trilogy)

Shakespeare’s three-part history cycle recounting the story of Henry VI and the Wars of the Roses is not seen too often these days – other of the Bard’s history plays are regarded as much better and always draw in the crowds.

So a warm pat on the back and a hearty round of applause to the Globe Theatre, currently touring with what must be described as a lively and audience-friendly of the trilogy with an amazingly versatile cast and excellent direction by Nick Bagnall. And running at just a couple of hours each they are tight, fast-paced and gripping without ever dragging.

The first part of the story, Harry the Sixth, is often regarded as the weakest of the plays but with the Globe production you would never know it. This is far more Star Wars – A New Hope than The Phantom Menace, keeping the story going, engaging the audience at every turn, and never once allowing pace or characterisation to drop.

Graham Butler’s fresh-faced Henry doesn’t have a line until half way through, yet lounges on the throne throughout, reading a book, just occasionally taking in what is going on around him. It’s a well-judged performance, not showing a weak king but a naive and inexperienced one, who is often more like an eager Blue Peter presenter than a young Royal.

The play begins at the funeral of Henry V, whose successes in France are quickly lost, with territories melting away from the English abroad while at home petty rivalry and bickering leads to a political hotbed.

The French are portrayed beautifully – especially Beatriz Romilly’s down to earth and plain-speaking Joan of Arc (both bewitching and eccentric) and Simon Harrison’s brave Dauphin – but this is a play where everyone plays many parts to perfection and not a single talented actor fails to make the very most of their multi-roles.

Garry Cooper is authoritative as the good and honest Protector, the Duke of Gloucester, involved in an ongoing feud with Mike Grady’s slimy Bishop of Winchester; Roger Evans is great as Suffolk, trying to resist his feelings for Margaret of Anjou though making it clear that he intend to use her to rule the king when he suggests that she marry Henry; , while Brendan O’Hea strikes the perfect balance with Richard Plantagenet, eager to right past wrongs, yet scheming enough to be a thorn among the roses.

Ti Green’s set is striking and versatile and put to good use, as is the use of sound, with actors also performing music and background noise.

This first part of Henry VI is unmissable – and while Shakespeare didn’t set out to write a trilogy you would be foolish indeed if you didn’t take this opportunity to see all three plays together.

David Guest