Which is your favourite Shakespeare? Few of us, I suspect, would answer that question by citing any one of the three parts of Henry VI. Yet so gripping, darkly funny and urgently inventive is this production by Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulan that it makes us see the works in an entirely new light. And deliciously murky that light is, too, coming as it does from flickering candles, giving the political machinations and brutal ambition a pleasingly sinister, shadow-stalked intensity. The trio of plays is here cut and condensed into one – albeit split by a pair of intervals – and the result is so riveting that it actually slightly outpaces the more popular and familiar Richard III. But presenting both works cheek by jowl like this gives them a rare narrative clarity and dramatic propulsion. The stagings are thoroughly theatrical, but there’s something cinematic in the flair of delivery and the pop culture swagger, the slicing and dicing of the text recreated with a bloody glee in the Tarantino-esque violence of the action.
The throne is a chaise longue that’s subjected to various indignities, among them being strung crazily up from the ceiling as the country spins out of kilter. Henry (Jonathan Broadbent), the reluctant new king, is a diffident ruler in sweats and an incongruous crown, struggling to be decent, surrounded by power-hungry plotters. The sceptr’d isle is a land of lager-swigging, soccer-fan patriotism here, with thuggish yells of “England!” reflecting a bellicose nationalism. When war breaks out, the York and Lancaster factions go to battle in football shirts proclaiming their team allegiances. Their weapons are baseball bats, golf clubs, even a chainsaw.
The spectacle of a bitterly divided country, the arguments over an association with a European power and the governmental wrangling all strike a clamorous chord, given the rise of the Far Right in the West and Britain’s current Brexit-dominated political mire. The Jack Cade rebellion is reimagined as a shady protest movement, in which hooded and grotesquely masked figures riot and spray-paint crude slogans on walls – only to find they can easily be used, and then crushed and disposed of. If there’s an element we miss in this prickly, breakneck staging, it’s Joan of Arc – such an iconic historical character and rare warrior woman that it seems a shame not to see what kind of spin this version might have given her. Still, cross-gender casting means that we get a steely, elegantly sadistic Queen Margaret from Steffan Donnelly, and a brilliantly slippery, terrifically creepy Gloucester from Sophie Russell. Before the end of Henry VI, her Dickie has already murdered the king by biting him in the neck like a vampire. In Richard III, she shows us a gore-guzzling, vaudevillian monster.
This is Richard as you’ve probably never seen him: slight, limber, without any pantomime hump or withered arm. He’s a horror of the kind that wears ill-fitting suits and delivers frothing edicts on Twitter. Each time he commits an atrocity, he bursts into song – Kris Kristofferson’s syrupy "For The Good Times" – which he dancingly delivers with Reservoir Dogs-ish delight. He’s part Dracula, part Hannibal Lecter, with a dash of Trump (slapping his courtiers’ rears and flying into a childish rage with a messenger who dares to bring bad news). Props come out of plastic police evidence pouches. Margaret, running mad, totes around a carrier bag full of severed heads. It’s a maelstrom of terror, venality and disgust, as chaotic, sickening and out of control as the modern world so often currently feels. This is Shakespeare electrified, plugged into our 21st-century anxiety, and galvanisingly delivering shock after shock.