THEATER REVIEW : A Burning 'Henry VI' : Director Katie Mitchell Shakes Up--and Renews--Shakespeare's Warhorse


The poetry of Shakespeare's "Henry VI" is at times so uninspired that for centuries scholars have argued hopefully that the bard didn't write its first part. They may now want to reclaim it for him: The 29-year-old Katie Mitchell has directed London's Royal Shakespeare Company in a version of "Henry VI" (mostly part III, with a little of II and "Richard III" mixed in) so vivid you will immediately forget you fell asleep at the last production you saw.

"Henry VI: The Battle for the Throne," part of the UK/LA Festival, plays at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts only until Sunday. It is not a perfect piece of theater--Mitchell does a little preaching to make the political points that are important to her. And, if her company imbues each of the many characters in the drama with a distinctive personality, they sometimes overshoot and go too far.

Most noticeably, her hunchbacked Richard, Duke of Gloucester (Tom Smith), who will become Richard III, is a sneering, mouth-breathing skinhead with tics, who rubs his gums when he's thinking up something particularly evil (perhaps excess oxygen has caused gingivitis?). Unaccountably, he has a lower-class accent, while his two brothers do not. So when he says, "I have no brother, I am like no brother," he appears to mean it literally.

But beyond the fact that Richard seems to have wandered off the set of "Sid and Nancy," Smith has some wonderful moments, such as when he fixes what he hopes to be an avuncular smile on his newborn nephew, one of his obstacles to the throne. If a cat could smile at a rodent, it would look like this.

"Henry VI" takes place during the War of the Roses, when England was divided by as bloody a civil war as anything happening today in Bosnia--as Mitchell has pointed out in interviews. The director underlines this point in the Act II scene in which a boy realizes he has killed his father and a father realizes he has killed his son. Atypically, she directs the characters as symbols of Universal Suffering instead of as human beings, giving this scene the emotional resonance of a War is Bad slogan scrawled across a wall.

Happily (if that's the word), the performances of the major characters are full of distinct evil and misery. And Mitchell's sense of dramatic tension is divine. The scene in which Queen Margaret (Ruth Mitchell) taunts the Duke of York (Stephen Simms) before ordering him slain on a molehill is particularly harrowing. Mitchell is a fiery queen who passionately believes that every murder she commits or sanctions is morally right, and she is a fierce reminder of the Augustinian notion, unquestioned at the time, that history is a course set by God.

As Lord Clifford, Jamie Hinde is a dead-eyed killer who waits, while Margaret taunts York, with the patience of a thoroughbred at the starting gate. Earlier he kills York's young son Rutland without mercy while the boy is embracing him, yet as he rises from the task his hard face betrays a very deeply buried anguish. This is a riveting performance that makes you want to rewrite history altogether to see what would happen if Clifford had Richard's ambition and luck and could usurp the crown.

Clifford's motivation is similar to that of Richard's evil brothers: You killed my father so I'm going to kill you. That their complaints are identical never occurs to them; mired in slaughter, they cannot stop it. The only character who can look beyond revenge is King Henry VI (a miserably wistful Jonathan Firth), who would like nothing so much as to give up his crown and rest. His moral advancement does no one any good; in a time like this, a man of inaction is as useless as Richard's left arm.

The three sons of York--Richard, Edward (Colin Tierney) and George (Jo Stone-Fewings)--are each evil in his own fascinating way. As Edward, Tierney is a man ruled by appetites and impatience; he believes he can force his will without finesse and of course fails to see Richard's true self. Tierney brilliantly displays both Edward's bullying and his weakness in the scene in which he tries to seduce a wily Lady Grey and ends up making a disastrous marriage because he fails to force her into having sex. Set designer Rae Smith evokes the rough living of the period in a dark wood set strewn with wood chips and overseen by a single, tall fir tree from which Margaret plucks a crown for poor York. A fresco of Saint George is the set's focal point and is strikingly lit by Tina MacHugh. Primitive wooden crosses with red or white roses attached grow in number throughout the evening until they surround the playing area. Actors periodically sing Latin lamentations for the dead in lovely voices, accompanied by a bagpipe and a flute.

After a character has slain another, he helps his victim to his feet and guides him downstage, as if to help the soul's journey to a place beyond the carnage. This is a lovely touch, one that proves Mitchell is in command of the moral undertow as much as she is of the play's many battles. York advises Margaret that a woman should be "soft, mild, pitiful, and flexible," and Mitchell's answer to this advice is as definitive as Margaret's. The director has seized history and made it her own.

* "Henry VI: The Battle for the Throne," Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive, Cerritos, Thursday and Friday, 7 p.m., Sunday, 3 p.m. Ends Sunday. $25-$45, $16 for students and children. (800) 300-4345. Running time: 3 hours, 20 minutes.

John Keegan: Earl of Warwick

Declan Conlon: Marquess Montagu

Stephen Simms: Richard, Duke of York/Lewis XI, King of France

Colin Tierney: King Edward IV

Tom Smith: Richard, Duke of Gloucester

Jo Stone-Fewings: George, Duke of Clarence

Tam Williams: Rutland

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart: Earl of Northumberland

Jamie Hinde: Lord Clifford

Chris Garner: Duke of Exeter

Jonathan Firth: King Henry VI

Ruth Mitchell: Queen Margaret

Liz Kettle: Lady Elizabeth Grey

A Royal Shakespeare Company production. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Katie Mitchell. Designed by Rae Smith. Lights by Tina MacHugh. Music by Helen Chadwick. Movement by Paul Allain. Fights by Malcolm Ranson. Sound by Andrea J. Cox. Shawms/percussion/bagpipes by William Lyons, Nicholas Perry, Belinda Sykes, Keith Thompson. Stage manager Martyn Sergent.

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