Julie Bainbridge casts a critical eye over Yvonne Murphy’s all female production of Shakespeare’s Henry VI at the Wales Millennium Centre.
This co-production, directed by Yvonne Murphy is epic. Not just with regard to subject; the bloody, brutal battle for the English crown between Lancaster and York, but also in terms of scale; the distillation of Shakespeare’s three Henry VI plays into one performance. It’s an ambitious project and one which Murphy struggles to pull off.
Riding on the back of her production of Richard III, Murphy again uses an all female ensemble for a performance in the Wales Millennium Centre roof void. The cast performance is brilliant, with strong performances from Louise Packer (Warwick), Suzanne Packer (Margaret), and Sioned Jones (York).
Lizzie Winkler is also convincing as the machiavellian king-in-waiting, Richard. The vast concrete space is skillfully used to create a desolate landscape which reflects a sense of the English landscape laid waste to constant warring. Cleverly positioned mirrors and multiple levels of scaffold and walkway are used to create different scene locations; one minute we are in England, the next, we’re in France. The monochrome costumes blend with the landscape and the orgy of gore and violence in Shakespeare’s original script is skillfully transmuted into a shower of red and white petals used to signify death. Tic Ashefield’s music is a discreet backcloth to the drama. It’s well executed yet, somehow, it just manages to miss the mark.
Maybe it’s the aerial performances of Henry, used as a device to signify his youthful disregard for matters of state. The acrobatics are a distraction from the drama and eventually become an irritation. Or it’s possibly the frequent scene changes which require the audience to constantly move around the roof void. The promenading is too much. It becomes wearisome and detracts from the drama. Any rising tension is lost by the uncertainty of whether one is standing or looking in the right direction. And it’s a long performance in a hot space. Despite a welcome interval, the performance runs to almost three hours. What begins as a refreshing interpretation of Shakespeare’s three plays becomes an ordeal. Perhaps a dramaturg might have reduced the script by an hour. Either way, it’s an ambitious project, and if you don’t know your history (or Shakespeare), it’s easy to be confused by the complexity of the story, especially when the cast take on multiple roles. Murphy tries to be faithful to Shakespeare’s texts, but there’s simply too much history to take in one dose. The cast work their guts out to deliver. They are brilliant. But they are not the only ones to leave the performance at the end of the evening feeling exhausted.
Adapted from Shakespeare by Yvonne Murphy
Wales Millennium Centre
All female cast promenade production
Co-produced by Omidaze Productions and Wales Millennium Centre Productions
Director: Yvonne Murphy
To find out about more about Omidaze Productions visit their website.
Julie Bainbridge is a frequent contributor to Wales Arts Review.