REVIEW: Henry VI Part Three: The True Tragedy of the Duke of York (Theatre Royal, Brighton)

A breakneck and explosive finale to the Globe Theatre’s sensational touring production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy ensured audiences who had wisely chosen to attend all three parts were left enraptured and not a little emotionally drained.

By the third part – The True Tragedy of the Duke of York – most in the audience had clearly seen the previous offerings and the fact that so many wanted to witness this final offering is testament to director Nick Bagnall’s vision and the quality of a tireless cast.

There can be little doubt that Simon Harrison’s powerful portrayal of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, was in danger of overshadowing everything, though no complaints about that. At last his actions and words foreshadowed Richard III, the hunchback willing to claim the crown by fair means or foul. The present trend is for Richard to be played more subtly, but here we were left in no doubt as to the character’s vicious streak, tempered by the plea for understanding in Act 3. One could only dream of how effective Harrison would be as the titular King in Richard III itself, a true twisted villain.

As the Wars of the Roses continued to be played out in this heavily edited but effective presentation of the trilogy, Graham Butler once again played Henry VI with pathos and passion. While the character grew weaker as the play progressed, the performance continued to be a strong one, and Henry’s moving “homely swain” soliloquy in Act 2 wishing for a simpler life was delivered with anguish and ruefulness. While the irony is that Henry is not a towering presence in any of the three plays, Butler made the most of the part, and neat touches included the cavalier tossing aside by his enemies of the prayer book which had been at his side since the opening of Part One.

The 14-strong company (and it is bordering on cruelty not to have space to name them all) continued to switch roles with apparent ease and to tremendous effect. How marvellous to see Brendan O’Hea being stripped of his defiance and power as Richard Plantagenet only to reappear later as a wonderfully caricatured and unpredictable King Lewis, a sort of Carry On ‘Allo ‘Allo royal to steal his scene.

As a whole this Globe touring trilogy proved to be one of the most watchable offerings of the summer at Brighton, whether audiences chose to sit through the entire history on the Saturday or preferred to pace themselves over three evenings. The company displayed a commendable stamina, and the production team ensured this bloodiest of periods in English history was presented in a potent way that commanded attention without losing too much of the plot and characters.

David Guest