Being part of a trilogy performed during a single week one would be obliged to visit the theatre three times in one week to derive maximum benefit. Judging by the small audience this seems to have been beyond either the pocket or the perseverance of the average Cambridge theatre-going audience member. Although the play stands up by itself there is the knowledge that without having seen its predecessors one has missed out. It is a frustration more than a problem.
Shakespeare’s Globe is many faceted and nothing if not ambitious. In addition to the work staged in the iconic theatre on the south bank of the Thames in London they send out tours on a regular basis. They play all kinds of venues, quite a lot of them out of doors. Herein might lie the key to a real problem. The production felt as if it were made for a much larger, open-air space. Much of the dialogue was unremitting in its shouted projection that by the end of the play this reviewer was beginning to wonder if the play had any subtle or softer moments in it at all.
The biggest problem though, certainly in this production, is the play itself. There is a philosophical provocation in it that demands the audience consider the anarchy that may prevail when there is a leadership vacuum. Mostly however it feels as if one is being immersed in the bloody history of the Plantagenet monarchy. So many die that by the end one is inured to the individual tragedy of any of them. It has a numbing effect.
On the other hand it is the chrysalis out of which Shakespeare’s awful Duke of Gloucester emerges to become the fully formed Richard III. Simon Harrison plays the crook-back with icy glee. His “I'll make my heaven to dream upon the crown” speech is wickedly portentous.
On a utilitarian wooden and metal set designed by Ti Green, a cast of men posture and shout at each other, swearing vengeance and hatred. They are tempered not by any women, Mary Doherty’s Queen Margaret being even more vengeful and strident than any of them, but by the weak and disenfranchised King Henry. In the hands of Graham Butler the King has a quiet dignity. Contemplative and well spoken it is a much-needed performance that provides a few moments’ peace before the resumption of the onslaught. Even he, though, is seduced into yelling his tragedy to the heavens before being another one to be butchered before us.
There is a very odd directorial decision by Nick Bagnall to try and relieve the persistent death and dying by the addition of some moments of outlandish comedy. They seem incongruous in their surroundings. Despite the skill of the playing of the King Louis XI by Brendan O’Hea, the character becomes little more than a music hall turn with his archetypical French dilettantism and monstrously comic French accent.
There are good things in it. O’Hea’s Duke of York is beautifully spoken and characterised. The clarity of the plot was commendable in what is a complicated gallop through the 15th century royal family tree. The percussive underscoring of the action gave it an insistency that commanded attention. A clever trick with white and red paint denoted which of the characters were of the House of Lancaster and which of York.
But ultimately, borrowing Shakespeare’s words from a much better play, the experience felt like it was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.