Henry VI Part Two is not a very good play. I wish it were, because in broad outline the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III together sound great. Late medieval England rips itself to pieces, split by war, a weak government and a power-mad aristocracy. The downward spiral churns ever faster as the marks of civilization fade and brutality becomes a self-renewing energy source. The audience becomes an unwitting accomplice as it feeds on one ghastlier atrocity after another committed by characters sinking further into bestial oblivion. Finally, a redemptive, unitive force appears to spearhead a renaissance and offer new hope for an age of peace and prosperity.
Great, great, but Shakespeare the twenty-something novice playwright is just not there. Too often, the pace shuts down so a minor character can have a moment or ten to soliloquize, and the lack of any genuinely interesting personality makes it hard to stay engaged. There are no heroes, here. “Good Duke Humphrey” seems vaguely well-intentioned, certainly the common-folk have his back; but he has no self-control (he keeps stomping out of the room to collect himself), is not particularly good at his job and is easily outmaneuvered by some pretty obvious villainy. And he has a curiously self-destructive wife who openly threatens the queen and hires a witch to communicate with demons in an era where such behavior was pretty heavily frowned upon. After finally, inevitably, messing herself up beyond rescue, she gets a long parting scene with hubby. Honestly, neither of them have earned the time on stage.
Even the villains fail to impress. Jack Cade, hired by the absent Duke of York to destabilize England by staging a rebellion, would seem like a good opportunity for a broad, brilliant character sketch but he is a growling, monotonous churl whose anarchic pandering is obvious and boring. And Queen Margaret, her hour of power not yet come, is merely a libidinous harpy.
It’s all rough going, not gonna lie. The listening experience is driven by the spectacle of increasing cultural and moral entropy and by the momentum of plots hatching and geese cooking. Darker and darker it all gets. The cast of the Argo recording gives it a really good effort – I don’t see how it could be better performed, but no one performance stands out amid the snarling and bellowing. Each character is firmly held by each competent actor and then passes out of hearing to make room for the next scene, working up to the finale, as the Duke of York arrives from Ireland with his army to “pluck the crown from feeble Henry’s head”. An exciting moment, as the real drama at last gets underway…
Henry VI Part Two with Richard Marquand, Mary Morris, Peter Orr, Norman Rossington and Patrick Wymark