One of the high points of The Wars of the Roses, John Barton’s adaptation of the three parts of Henry VI, was Queen Margaret’s speech to her followers as they approached King Edward’s army at Tewkesbury for their final face-off. Having just lost the forces of the great Earl of Warwick as well as that of the treacherous Clarence, her reduced band has no chance of victory, and her pitiful attempt to deny the obvious was heartbreaking. Decades later, Julia Foster’s Margaret for the BBC Shakespeare production moved along much the same lines.

But poignance is nowhere to be found in Mary Morris’ performance for the Argo Shakespeare series. She is haughty and bellicose and makes no plea for sympathy. Eventually, she will break down after the battle is over and her son the prince is slain before her eyes, but rage and despair are torn out of her at that point. Not until then will she show weakness. For Margaret, that figure of ruthless pride with a streak of sadism, is not in the play to contribute humanity. She is there to bring heat; the destructive force of vengeful hatred. We’ve already seen her, in Part 2, whispering sweet nothings to the severed head of the Duke of Suffolk, so we know we’re not truly expected to connect with her. Mary Morris is recreating her performance of a few years earlier for An Age of Kings, the live TV version of Shakespeare’s history plays, where she brought a striking visual presence, like some fairy tale villainess.

Mary Morris (1915-1988) was adept at conveying powerfully sinister women. She is unforgettable as Halima, the seductive servant to the evil Jaffar in Alexander Korda’s Thief of Bagdad who mysteriously reappears in the form of the deadly Silver Maid. She was Cleopatra, again for Peter Dews, in his Spread of the Eagle Shakespearean cycle on television, and was yet another figure of dark authority as one of The Prisoner’s “Number Two” incarnations.

Morris keeps this long messy play afloat, along with three other key performances, two of them from the amateur cast. The other professional player is Patrick Wymark, whose delivery characterization as Richard Crookback combines warlike gruffness with an odd, jagged singsong. Richard Marquand is a splendid Henry VI, his vocal characterization flawlessly embodying both the ineffectuality and the unwavering sincerity of the saintly king; and 21 year old John Shrapnel is terrific as Young Clifford, dizzy with bloodthirsty fury.

Henry VI Part 3 with Richard Marquand, Mary Morris, Peter Orr, Patrick Wymark and John Shrapnel.

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