RSC production of Henry VI (1994-95)

Jonathan Firth who plays the title role in Katie Mitchell's Henry VI for the RSC talks to Lit Gilbey.

One of Shakespeare's earliest and least known plays is set for a new world fame as the Royal Shakespeare Company gears up for its most extensive world tour ever -- a year on the road taking in South America and Sunderland, Leominster and Los Angeles, Germany and Japan en route. Henry VI, The Battle For The Throne, is the third play in the young playwright's Henry VI cycle, part of the War of the Roses histories, and one of Shakespeare's least performed plays. Katie Mitchell, directs, and after a scant seven weeks at Stratford's Other Place, begins its mammoth trek around the globe.

Leading the company as Henry in his RSC debut is young actor Jonathan Firth, seen most famously on TV as wastrel made good Fred Vincey in BBC TV's multi million pound costume drama, George Eliot's Middlemarch. And his first response to taking a rare Shakespeare from the end of its own trilogy: it stands up in its own right as a play very well. It is not essential to have seen or read the other two plays to see and understand this one. Academics think they were written out of chronological order anyway, and this was the one that made Shakespeare's name as a young writer.'

There is plenty of controversy surrounding it. As the first play to ever tackle the real history of the nation there is still the argument about whether it was one of Shakespeare's first, or Marlowe's last. 'Authors did tend to borrow ideas and structures from each other in those days,' remarks Jonathan Firth, trying not to get too deep into the literary debate. ‘All I can say is that it certainly sounds and feels like Shakespeare to me!'

In recent years these early plays as separate entities have been neglected -- it's many years since Henry VI has been produced outside the trilogy, the larger cycle, or in an uncondensed version -- but today there is much to be seen reflecting the modern world in the study of the influence of power, the murderous quality of families, the underestimation of goodness, justice, salvation, the murderous relationships in families, how quickly life can turn into nightmare, all told with a tumbling, absorbing vitality.

Henry VI was England's youngest monarch: his father died when Henry was just nine months old. ‘He led a sheltered, cloistered life. His mother remarried when he was small, so he was essentially an orphan, a symbol of state from an early age, innocent of the world. He may have been naive about life and politics, but he wasn't stupid. He was very astute on broader issues, and I've got to bring that out in him -- that although he's more spiritual than political and he makes mistakes, there's someone real and sympathetic there. This is the first king I've ever played, but that can't remove me too much from playing a human being too!'

If the whole of Henry VI can be compared to a film noir, a Mafia gangster legend told across generations as son usurps father, mother manipulates uncle, then there has been contention about Henry himself, most famously known as the Shakespearean hero who sits down on a molehill to contemplate life. Is he a pious wimp, a saintly idealist, or the still centre of calm who watches a civil war rage around him?

Jonathan Firth -- younger brother of Colin Firth -- sees him more as someone whose destiny is outside his own control, ‘swept along by the tide of history. Events, and destiny, are bigger than him. This is really quite a complex play, about a man not prepared to compromise his moral integrity for gain. That's quite something in a play about civil war. And we are seeing rather a lot of civil war in real life, in Rwanda, in the former Yugoslavia, and that only serves to reflect how desperate and complicated these situations are, how every side involved seems to have legitimate grievances, how views and actions differ so on what is right and wrong, how rapidly situations degenerate, until power is the thing -- -- morality seems to have nothing to do with it. And across the centuries it was just the same in the War Of The Roses: both York and Lancaster seemed to have legitimate claims to the throne. But there was no compromise, so there was war.

'In this families raise armies and thrash each other. And unlike the other history plays that base themselves solely on a central character, there are four or five protagonists in this one equally strong; so you see so many agendas, so much power and vitality on display.'

Director and cast has been delving deep into the background of the period.

Back to top

 Rights: Donald Cooper These images may be used for educational purposes only, any commerical use of this material requires the permission of the copyright holder. Donald Cooper   photographer. Please click on the image above to visit the source site of these pics.

Description  "Heavy rain, snowstorms, falling autumnal leaves and clear dawn-light-the full gamut of the English climate is heard or seen...birdsong and sheep bleating, sounds that are both reassuring in their normality and disturbing in their transformations into the sounds of horses in pain during the battles. There are other reminders of the natural world in the bark that covers the stage floor and in a pine tree on the side of the stage from which Margaret tears a branch to serve as a mocking crown she puts on the Duke of York's head before killing him. It is echoed too in the rough crosses of twigs tied together that accumulate along the sides of the stage as the production unfolds." Peter Holland, Times Literary Supplement 26.8.94

 Title  Henry VI Part I: RSC:Mitchell/Smith/94-8 

Back to articles page