Bard on the Beach.  Henry VI.  Photo David Blue.Henry VI: The Wars of the Roses by William Shakespeare; adapted by Chrisopher Weddell

Dates and Venue 30 June - 21 September 2011 8pm on Tues - Sun (+ matinees) | Douglas Campbell Studio Theatre, Vanier Park

Director Christopher Weddell Costume Designer Sheila White Lighting Designer Adrian Muir Composer and Sound Designer Patrick Pennefather Fight Director Nicholas Harrison Choreographer Treena Stubel Stage Manager Joanne P.B. Smith

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Ambition walks the boards at Bard on the Beach this season, both literally and figuratively. Artistic Director Christopher Gaze has bravely undertaken to present Shakespeare's little-performed early works on the life of Henry VI and Christopher Weddell has condensed the 3 full-length plays and 50 years of history into a single play clocking in in under 3 hours.

On stage, Shakespeare presents the personal ambitions of the York family as one of the causes of England's disastrous civil wars. A second thread is the technical question of the legitimacy of the Lancastrian kingship and a third the dire consequences of child-like simplicity in a leader.  These themes are elegantly tied together in the famous garden scene in which Richard of York picks a white rose, his opponent a red one and their followers form factions as they follow suit.  A lawyer picks white, but the king, oblivious to symbolism, chooses a red rose.

Scott Bellis grows the disgraced magnate Richard Plantagenet into the ruthless Duke of York, father of the future Richard III, in a restrained and chilling performance.  Linda Quibell's fiery Queen Margaret is well-matched with Craig Erikson's Marquess  of Suffolk, swash-buckling and thoroughly untrustworthy. Gerry Mackay's portrayal of the honourable Duke of Gloucester is both subtle and solid.  As his wife, Eleanor, Jillian Fargey is convincingly ambitious, sexy and contemporary and in contrast, she is also excellently cast as the much more sophisticated Lady Grey.   Bob Frazer's younger Richard is a man of quick intelligence and enormous courage.  Fraser has given him appalling physical challenges and a smile as sharp as a knife, portending a wolfish, fascinating King Richard.

Comic relief is provided by the rebel leader Jack Cade, dynamically played by Joel Wirkunnen.  In a bold move, Weddell has collapsed the centuries and set the rebels in a larger-than life musical hall world which is at once hilarious and disconcerting.

Despite some excellent acting and intelligent direction, and despite the multiplicity of energetic fights (kudos to Nick Harrison and Treena Stubel) and quarrels, there is a lack of tension overall.  This adaptation reduces the story of the French wars from a full play to a few scenes and the French to a paltry band whose Joan la Pucelle (Melissa Dionisio) is no mirror for either Margaret or Eleanor.  The normally competent Josue Laboucane in the title role of Henry VI seems unable to find the centre of an unmilitary, unpolitical character and fails to offer the audience a character to care about.  

Neither costumes nor music help in this respect.  In an effort to make the play's ideas relevant to our modern global world, Sheila White has incorporated bits and pieces of Chinese silks and cotton prints into the costumes which do nothing to help the physical or metaphorical world of the play.  The modern uniforms work though and fit well with Pam Johnson's effective and versatile set. Patrick Pennefather's music is also disappointingly weak. The lighting by Adrian Muir can't resolve the problems.

Nevertheless, this is a play well-worth seeing.  While it could possibly be more exciting, it is not dull.  There is enough blood and gory action to suit anyone.  As the back story to Richard III it will inform you. Most intriguing is to watch the young Shakespeare develop. Early on, characters are more distinguishable as types rather than as individuals and what you see is what you get.  By the end, the failed state and the dysfunctional society, the disloyal family and the monstrous individual are inextricably interwoven.  Richard III, himself, alone, is waiting in the wings.

© 2011 Elizabeth Paterson