If Shakespeare wrote poorly, Henry VI, Part 1 would demonstrate this. Harold Bloom (The Invention of the Human) attributed this to Shakespeare cutting his teeth in the theatre, as Henry VI, Part 1 is one of his earlier plays. Possibly, Shakespeare was only trying to patch-up a badly constructed and worded play by another playwright. Isaac Asimov (Guide to Shakespeare) suggests that Shakespeare was pandering to his audience, trying to match Christopher Marlowe’s blockbuster hack-up Tamburlaine the Great, or securing future attention of the royalty by skewering the historical facts to make the British look good. So, how does a theatre produce Henry VI, Part 1, as well as it’s sequels, Part 2 and 3? The text does little more than introduce one battle scene after another, with shifting loyalties of course, and defame Joan la Pucelle (aka Joan of Arc). The Blackfriar Theatre looked closely at the text as their guide.
Talbot: Ne’er trust me then; for when a world of men
Could not prevail with all their oratory,
Yet hath a woman’s kindness overrule’d:–
And therefore tell her I return great thanks,
And in submission will attend on her.
Their insight was how they cast the women in the acting company. Talbot, as the fearless warrior, is right that the men on stage are little more than dogs, dolts, or dandies. As Shakespeare will demonstrate in future plays, the women, Portia, Beatrice, Olivia, Rosaline, and Katrina, are brighter and more courageous than the blow-hard men.
Abby Hawk, as Joan la Pucelle, can match wits and muscle with any military adversary that the English send to lay siege. Her arms and sword may be shorter than Talbots, but she can defend herself with assurance until Talbot’s determination forces his hand. The Duke of York uses the long-arm of the church to eventually accuse her of witchcraft, showing mercy only by adding extra barrels of pitch the fire that she might not suffer long.
Allison Glenzer fills several roles through the play, though her highlight is the french princess Margaret of Anjou. Though her character only arrives on stage near the end of the play, she commands the resolution of the play, as well as the content of Henry VI, Part 2, when she marries Henry to unite England and France again. During that scene, Margaret’s subtlest change of expression has us wondering whether Joan la Pucelle was the only woman using witchcraft in this play. Should this royal marriage come to pass, Henry will be king only because he wears the crown. Margaret will be Queen.
As to Henry VI, who was only about 5 to 10 years only when the events actually happened, though Shakespeare compressed and subverted time frames by 20-plus years, is played by Stephanie Holladay Earl (see the photo at the beginning of this review). Her meek innocence conveys the child-King, who wants his lords to play nice in the sandbox. Her comparatively slight build, compared to those lords, displays that the king does not have the physical prowess to compete on the field of battle. Henry VI is not the warrior that his grandfather and father were (Henry VI and V, whom Shakespeare will chronicle later in his career). Yet, Earl plays Henry VI with a sweetness that is enduring and believable.
Now, I do not want to come across as demeaning any of the male actors. Shakespeare just wrote them lousy roles. They have little to build on other than rants and scheming. Were they all who were on stage, I would pass on seeing Henry VI, Part 2 next year. But, Margaret of Anjou can seduce me any day… Cur that I am.
Earl of Suffolk: Ah, beauty’s princely majesty is such,
Confounds the tongue, and makes the senses rough