He appears in a prequel which could just as easily have been written without him; he stays too long, he talks too much and he accomplishes absolutely nothing. Lord Talbot is the Jar Jar Binks of Shakespeare’s history plays.
For his Wars of the Roses adaptation, John Barton trimmed Talbot’s role, and for An Age of Kings, producer Peter Dews eliminated him entirely. For Jane Howell’s BBC version, Trevor Peacock made him a seriocomic figure. But for the Argo series, William Devlin faces undaunted the task of presenting him in dead seriousness in a full text. He fights a teenage girl in hand to hand combat without winning, he intimidates the Countess of Auvergne by surrounding her with armed soldiers and he finally dies with his son, trampled to death by an angry hoard of rhymed couplets.
Of course, Devlin must fail, fine actor though he was. Talbot’s ability to command reverence and sympathy are fully dependent on a cultural context that no longer exists. He is a British Custer without the dash, massacred by an enemy no longer regarded as evil or treacherous. Shakespeare would have needed a completely different approach to make his hero palatable for an audience hundreds of years later, and of course, why would he?
Without this context, we’re left with a grim, chaotic, violent mess. Henry V has died, and taken all genius and enthusiasm with him. The play actually begins on a note of lamentation – fair enough, but the play hits that note far too often, and Henry’s aging comrades come off looking like a gang of whimpering old men. The military commanders whine and fail, the younger noblemen plot against each other and hiss nasty insults back and forth.
One approach for a listener is to assume that on some level, Shakespeare understood what a miserable, thick porridge of underdeveloped, narrowly self-interested personalities he had created, and meant to create a sense of impatience and unease. The scene is set for a scourge who will wipe the slate clean and allow England to start over again.
Did Shakespeare not realize what a magnetic, fascinating character he had drawn in Joan La Pucelle? Surrounded by tired, bickering nonentities, Joan comes off as bright, energetic, witty and resourceful. Brilliantly performed by Freda Dowie, she delights simply by having a plan and some sense of engagement and self-confidence. The recording comes alive every time she turns up.
But she is not the appointed one, and our author lamentably drops a final scene of desperate pleading to tarnish her character before leading her off to the stake (ironically, even this backfires – Joan comes off as human and vulnerable, while her captors seem like merciless brutes).
No, the Scourge of the Plantagenets who will clear the path for the redemptive Tudor dynasty still waits in the wings, slouching toward Part 2 to be born.
Henry VI Part One with Richard Marquand, Mary Morris, Peter Orr, William Devlin and Freda Dowie.