A Big Dose of the Bard...

No Saturday supplement this week... not because there isn't much out there of interest in the virtual world... if anything there is too much to swiftly sift it... but because there has also been too much on in the "real" world with the beginning of September and trying to find a new rhythm to life in a new setting...
But despite my busyness I did manage to carve out a whole day last Saturday to enjoy my birthday present from my wife... a triple bill of Henry VI parts 1, 2 & 3 performed by the Globe Theatre company... So at the same time as 400 people were gathering in the Lyric theatre to mark the passing of the bard from Bellaghy, I and about 400 others were staggering punch drunk into the Grand Opera House for the final furlong of nearly 8 hours of Shakespeare.
I don't recollect ever having seen any of these three history plays before so I have nothing to compare them with from my own experience... all I can say is that I enjoyed the whole day. There were no big names in the cast (an I have to say that I wonder whether that, combined with the huge cost to see all three, resulted in the relatively paltry turn out) but that was not a disadvantage in my eyes. Too often I have gone to see a Shakespeare play with some sort of celebrity in the lead role, only to watch someone sleep-walk their way through the production. Instead this cast, all playing multiple parts except Graham Butler as the titular Henry, delivered a superb, high energy, ensemble performance. This has something to say, not just about theatrical performances but about any corporate enterprise... including church and society as a whole... We may bleat on about leadership, but the leadership that produces coherent, collaborative work is not necessarily about charismatic, celebrity-style stars, but the creative, hard work of directors, producers and stage managers working behind the scenes with actors playing their parts to the best of their abilities.
As well as having no big celebrity names in the cast, this production also had no over-arching political message impressed upon it, unlike some previous ones I have read about like Hall's in the 1960s or Noble and Bogdanov/Pennington's concurrent cycles in the late 1980s. However, letting the story tell itself allowed the enduring, if not eternal themes to emerge with a number of highly relevant issues:
  • The vacuum created in the absence of strong leadership... a vacuum which is then filled by the self-seeking agendas of competing potential leaders... 
  • The dangers of leadership that is too far removed from the people, be it through intellectual elitism or personal piety... Henry VI was an innovator in the field of education and widely praised for his piety... but is generally recognised as a relatively ineffectual King... The fact that he lasted as long as he did is generally held to be due to the fact that his rivals were too evenly balanced...
  • The "history" of a country being judged in terms of the effects on the rich and powerful. This period of history which covered the latter years of the Hundred years War and the Wars of the Roses were seen as a calamitous time by the Tudors, and much of the machinations by Henry VIII and later Elizabeth regarding the succession were largely prompted by fear of a descent into the wranglings that preceded Henry the VII's usurpation of the crown... However, the ironic thing is that the peasants were largely unaffected by these events... Their liege-Lord may have changed a number of times, but they simply got on with their, relatively miserable, day to day lives... But in this play the turning point for Henry VI is when he sees the cost of the civil war to the poor, of fathers killing their sons and sons their  fathers. Today the well-being of a country is still ultimately judged by the effects on the rich and powerful... but often it is the poor and powerless who end up paying the price of keeping the structures of power and privilege in place...
  • The poisonous cycle of vengeance... The trajectory of York's life, is set by the "wrongs" done to his father and uncle Mortimer in the preceding historical cycle, starting with the deposition of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV... and then the killing of one father by another, leads a son to kill a son in revenge... and no-one can see further than their own need for vengeance... Leading to the irony of a mother pleading for pity for her son before the son of a man she had mocked in the face of the murder of one of his younger sons... The only way that such a model can bring about peace is through the wholesale obliteration of the enemy. Leave one enemy alive and the violence escalates. Such injustice is never forgotten. Breaking the cycle of revenge through compassion and forgiveness is the only mechanism to address the pain of the past... Recognising the suffering and common humanity of others, rather than just recording the wrongs done to you and yours...
  • The nature of history... Shakespeare's history plays were unabashed political propaganda... They were not an accurate record of events... they melded multiple characters into one for the sake of simplicity and painted different characters sympathetically or not depending on what might be popular with the people in power, or the hoi-polloi in the theatre pit... For example, Jean d'Arc (brilliantly played by Beatriz Romilly) is ultimately painted, not as a martyr-saint, but as a demon-conspiring witch... The actual facts of history (particularly the history of Northern Ireland) are not what what matters... but "the truth" that people have been taught from one perspective or another... Such histories shape us and and ultimately shape our future...
And it was partly with that in mind, despite the numbness in my backside and the mental fatigue of processing Shakespearean English for 8 hours, I actually came to the end of the production wishing they had completed the cycle by including Richard III in it... because in many ways it not only completes the story of the houses of Lancaster and York, but it also shows how such a toxic history ultimately plunges everyone into darkness... In this version of history Richard of Gloucester, son of Richard of York and later to become Richard III was misshapen in body (and the recent excavation of a Leicester carpark suggests that wasn't just Tudor propaganda) but much more crucially, his spirit was misshapen because of all that had gone before...
History shapes the future... and stories shape spirits...


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