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The Rose Theatre, Bankside presents:
To successfully stage a Shakespearian play is always a challenge; to do so with what was arguably the playwright’s weakest work is even more of a challenge. Combine this with the fact that your performance area is limited by a pool of shallow water covering most of what would ideally be the stage and the challenge becomes daunting, to say the least. However, the overwhelmingly dedicated and enthusiastic team behind this production of Henry VI, Part 1 at The Rose theatre have not only risen to this challenge, but truly excelled at it.
Firstly, a little must be said about the venue at which this performance took place. Situated in London’s vibrant Bankside area, The Rose is a hidden gem; an overlooked little cousin of the world-famous Globe, which itself is only a few hundred yards away. Like the Globe, The Rose staged contemporary performances of Shakespeare’s plays – along with those of other important dramatists, such as Christopher Marlowe – and is enjoying a new lease of life in the 21st century. Unlike its neighbour, however, The Rose is not a modern-day replica but the actual site of the original playhouse. Excavated in 1989 and finally reopened for performances in 2007, knowing the significance of The Rose’s incredible history made this production even more enjoyable than it would have been in a modern-day venue.
Funding permitting, the theatre is shortly due to undergo extensive further work that will hopefully see a glass floor installed over the original stage area, allowing audiences to look down at the 16th century foundations, and thus providing a much larger performance space. Until then, though, the actors and directors must make do with what they have – a massive room (much of which is immersed in a few inches of water for preservation), a tiny stage just in front of the audience and a slightly larger space across the water on the other side of the room. Far from limiting the success of this production, the cast and crew of Henry VI, Part 1 turned all of these logistical difficulties to their advantage, making full use of the unique atmosphere which inevitably accompanies such a historic setting.
Right from the introduction (a particularly eye-catching and well-designed introduction), we were treated to a performance which, given that the play was first staged here over four hundred years ago, was surprising in its freshness and ability to intrigue. This was, in large part, down to stand-out performances from several members of the cast. Oliver Lavery’s portrayal of Gloucester was a particular highlight - the enthusiasm he brought to this pivotal role and the humour he injected into many of his lines gave the whole feel of the performance a buoyant, exciting edge which could so easily not have been the case, given the density and sheer age of Shakespeare’s text. Henry VI (Isaac Jones) also performed well in the title role. Although not actually one of the biggest speaking parts, Jones captured the character’s personality brilliantly. Watching the young king shrinking, squirming and grimacing on his throne, even one who did not understand a word of what was being said would have deduced that here was an inexperienced, petrified monarch thrust into immense difficulties which he had no idea how to deal with. Morgan Thomas also impressed with his understated portrayal of Winchester, as did Amy Barnes’s brief but memorable scene as the Countess of Auvergne. Barnes was one of a number of actors who played multiple characters and, taking this into account, it was amazing how fluent and polished the entire performance was.
Nevertheless, it was director Bronagh Lagan and her crew’s maximising of the limited room they had to work with which was the most impressive aspect of the performance. The Jeff Wisnoski-directed battles saw more people running about and fighting each other than seemed possible in such a small space and, but for one or two tiny technical errors with the sound, these scenes passed off without a hitch. The lighting, designed by Phil Webb, was innovative enough to add a modern touch to proceedings, yet subtle enough to reflect and respect the ancient atmosphere that surrounds both the theatre and the play.
I would have advised you take a trip to The Rose even if Henry VI, Part 1 had been a failure. Looking out across a stage which saw that same play performed as long ago as 1592 is a special experience and would be enough to recommend a visit in itself. Fortunately, though, this reproduction – performed by a cast of actors who all seem to take a great deal of pride in their project – got pretty much everything right. It may not be the best thing Shakespeare wrote (in fact, there is some debate as to whether he wrote much of it at all), but, as a member of staff said to me afterwards, that doesn’t really matter. Far be it from me to go against our beloved Bard but in this case it is the theatre, not the play, that’s really the thing.
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