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The BBC TV Shakespeare hadn't a lot to spend on settings, and none could be more basic than this, with rickety doors representing the gates of Orleans and other cities. There's also a lot of doubling, which means that, e.g., Tenniel Evans as the French general reappears within seconds as the brave Duke of Bedford. Yet the complex plot is unravelled with wonderful clarity, thanks to fine speaking which does full justice to the young Shakespeare's verse, shrewd casting and Jane Howells' spirited direction. Trevor Peacock's staunch Talbot, Frank Middlemass's baleful Wichester/ Cardinal Beaufort and David Burke's sturdy Gloucester, Lord Protector, stand out. Joseph O'Conor, veteran Derek Farr and Bernard Hill are excellent, and if Brenda Blethyn as Joan La Pucelle is too much the pantomime principal boy, she goes movingly to her terrible end. Peter Benson seems rather old for the supposedly youthful King Henry, but speaks beautifully. I can hardly wait for Part 2 (like this, now available on DVD).
Absolutely hooked, a real page-turner. Each scene is a gem and I really can't see how anyone could portray Henry VI better than Peter Benson. Your heart just aches for him. Brenda Blethyn is also excellent as a cunning Joan of Arc (and her accent is a Yorkshire one - not Cockney as a previous poster has claimed). The reason for this - I assume - is to portray her humble origins to an English audience. Her fight scene with Trevor Peacock's Talbot had me rolling in the aisles, " I'll chastise this high-minded strumpet!" I also like the simple set, which makes the complex story easier to follow. Better than Footballers'Wives as far as mass market entertainment goes.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I was staggered when I read the running time for this piece: 188
minutes, and this is just Part One! Thankfully, most of the play makes
sense and the plot flows well to maintain interest.
Despite the fact this play follows the events of "Henry V" (made by the BBC in 1979 for this series) the second part of the Histories cycle has a different cast and director, plus an altogether different feel. Instead of verbatim historical settings reproduced in a studio, the action takes place on a multi-coloured background of staircases, platforms and climbing nets, much like a children's play park. The effect takes a bit of getting used to, but once it settles in adds greatly to the increasing sense of nightmarishness that dominates the story.
The first part is just set-up for events that really kick off the second and third parts of "Henry VI", before concluding in "Richard III". In the wake of the death of his father, Henry V, Henry VI (Peter Benson) is newly crowned and must deal with not only a rebellion the French lands led by the dynamic Joan La Pucelle (Brenda Blethyn) but also a civil feud between his own family and the Plantagenets led by the Duke of York (Bernard Hill). The War of the Roses has begun...
Peter Benson, in his sparse appearances, makes King Henry VI (the true 'weak king' and not Richard II) an effeminate and ineffectual figure already led and manipulated by others. Trevor Peacock makes a rousing Lord Talbot, the King's chief ally, and Bernard Hill is excellent as the bloodthirsty Duke of York. David Daker is the most successful of all the actors who are doubling roles, and makes good distinctive characters of both Vernon, one of York's compatriots, and the French King Reignier.
Not a bad effort despite the length, and the story continues in Part Two.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
As some other reviewers have noted, this production of one of
Shakespeare's longest plays is very much 'enclosed' and presented on an
abstract set. It is, for me , futile and irrelevant to speculate
whether this was a creative or financial decision, but it does not
invalidate the film. What we are getting is a record of a production of
Henry VI Pt1 not a film of the events of the same play in 'real'
For me, the production is a real curate's egg, but before commenting on that, I want to make a few observations about the play itself. In most of Shakespeare's plays there is a main driving narrative into which the Bard weaves his unique and wonderful insights into the human condition. This - apparently very early work (ascribed to ~ 1592), there is a melange of interlocking 'stories', and, structurally it seems more like, for example, 'Hannah and her Sisters' - that is a treatise on the inter- relatedness of things. It was hence written several years before the better-known and more celebrated Henry V, and in it's denouement, it is not so very different - with the King finally marrying a French princess to join the two nations in harmony (although it, and they, didn't).
It seems that scholars now regard this play as a collaborative work to which Shakespeare contributed but did not dominate. I was, nonetheless hugely impressed with the way in which the various narrative threads are joined together, and there are several exquisite scenes. In spite of the representation of Henry VI himself as weak and effeminate, his scenes ring with gentle wisdom in their optimism. By contrast, there is real venom in the scenes between Winchester and Gloucester. But the real jewel is the key scene (Act 4 Sc 5) in which Lord Talbot/Earl of Shrewsbury's son John comes to the aid of his father in an impossible military situation. Their dialogue on the place of valour and protective love of father for son is immensely moving and full of irony and the kind of insight into the human condition that we come to expect from Shakespeare.
So what of the production itself? Stylistically, is is virtually flat, with just the occasional close up for asides to break the sense that the director wanted to do no more than show the production 'from the front row'. So, ultimately, it stands and falls on the characterisations, the acting and the mise en scene. Trevor Peacock makes a creditable Talbot, Frank Middlemass is suitably venomous as Winchester/Cardinal Beaufort, David Burke makes a fine Gloucester/Lord Protector, and Bernard Hill is suitably Machiavellian as the Duke of York.
Clearly the casting of Peter Benson as Henry VI himself is controversial, to say the least. But this is difficult as the play presents events that take place over a 15+ year period during which Henry ages from 8 years old to at least 25. Benson would have been nearly 40 at the time of the production so we can only really regard his characterisation as 'symbolic'. And for me, at least, it works very well.
The French characters fare less well... Charles the Dauphin is all smirks and smiles, but carries no weight. Worse - indeed the major weakness for me is Brenda Blethyn's Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) who is saddled with a ridiculous Yorkshire accent. But, in a way, she is written as a sort of pantomime villainess, and only comes alive at the hour of her death.
As long as one doesn't compare the production with the great Welles Shakespeare adaptations or suchlike, this Henry VI Pt 1 works fine. But it isn't cinema....
Part of the trilogy plays about the reign of Henry VI by William
Shakespeare, this production of Henry VI Part One introduces many of
the principal characters involved in what later became the War Of The
Roses. The character of Henry VI who is played by Peter Benson was the
center of a lot of forces moving around him that he could not control,
nor did he care to try.
Talk about the apple falling far from the tree Henry V, mighty military leader, victor at Agincourt, conqueror of France who even usurped the succession to the French crown as well who died quite suddenly when this Henry was a mere infant. His mother Catherine of France who his father appropriated as a bride as a spoils of war never went back to France. Instead she married a near do well knight named Owen Tudor and had some kids with him. The descendants of that marriage also came to rule England, but that's getting ahead of ourselves.
Henry VI had no interest at all in conquest and military matters. He was a scholar and devoutly religious. The main thing his reign is known for is the founding of Oxford College. As a minor at this point his two uncles, brothers of his father ran the realm. The Duke of Bedford played by Tenniel Evans was the regent in France and the Duke of Gloucester played by David Burke ran things at home in England.
And there were cousins galore because way back in the last century Edward III had a number of sons and the descendants of all of them eventually got to scrapping in the War Of The Roses over who would be ruler. The characters in that struggle are all introduced here.
Two things happen in Part One that are the main features of this play. The first is the story of Joan Of Arc who in Shakespeare's work is not quite the saint that future writers make her. Or that French legend has here. Remember Shakespeare was ever the English propagandist and Joan La Poucelle as she is called here is presented as the town tramp who was calling on the black arts for French success. Brenda Blethyn plays her here and this is one the Bard's great parts for women.
The second thing is also to do with a woman. For retreating and ceding conquered territory to the Dauphin Of France, a French duchess is given as a bride to Henry VI. Margaret Of Anjou is not a main character here, but English audiences in the 1590s when this play was first presented knew well of her role in the War Of The Roses. Julia Forster plays her here, a timid, but at the same time resolute woman who is looking forward to being Queen of England.
This is a good production as all the features of the Bard that the BBC did back in the day. A lot of people are Tudor fans, but personally I think nothing matches this period for double dealing intrigue.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The four plays Shakespeare wrote about the Wars of the Roses is capped
by the very famous Richard III. But Richard, taken literally, doesn't
make much sense unless one is familiar with aspects of the previous
three plays, which deal with the reign of Henry VI.
The series of Henry VI plays presented in the BBC's Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare boasts a powerhouse ensemble cast, including but not limited to: Trevor Peacock, Frank Middlemass, Bernard Hill ("Lord of the Rings"), David Burke (Brett's Watson in "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"), Mark Wing-Davey ("The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"), Tenniel Evans ("The Navy Lark") and Ron Cook ("Topsy-Turvy") who goes on to play Richard III.
These Henry VI plays are presented in bare-bones style, probably reminiscent of the way they were done on stage at the Globe Theater four hundred years ago.
This may have been dictated by financial straits. Or it may have been inspired by the Royal Shakespeare Company's successful nine-hour "Nicholas Nickleby" -- which was never boring.
It may also reflect a lack of respect for the source material (even the best actors in this series don't resist the urge to mug and leer and overplay; Julia Foster's Margaret is particularly grating on the nerves -- which is too bad, since once Margaret steps on the stage she dominates Henry VI).
Whether because of money or a lack of respect -- or even perhaps because the people who made them had fundamental misunderstandings about them -- this presentation grows quickly tiresome. If they thought they were doing something clever, they weren't.
It's too bad. The Henry VI plays are not often presented, and the only other notable version done for television and out on DVD (that I know about) is the 1960s series "The Age of Kings", which does all eight plays between Richard II and Richard III in one-hour formats (I think they were live, so the actors are reciting Shakespeare against the clock).
"The Age of Kings" also, due to the limitations of budget and especially the limitations of the television medium at the time, did necessarily stagy productions. The actors of the '60s series (including a young Sean Connery as Hotspur) do their best at just finding their t.v. marks within phony backdrops that seem ready to collapse on them.
It's too bad that the Henry VI plays done by the BBC twenty years later, as part of the Complete Dramatic Works, could not have been opened out like some of the other plays in this series (i.e."As You Like It" or "Henry VIII"). If they had to be done on interior sets, they were worthy of a better design (like "Twelfth Night" or "Much Ado About Nothing" -- even "The Merry Wives of Windsor", a perfectly lousy play with perfectly wonderful sets!) And the material should have been treated with more respect. Not because it's "Shakespeare" as a name to conjure with. "They" knew when they started this complete series of the plays that they were to be something of a touchstone. It's all right to experiment with the more well-known plays; no series could boast "the standard" version of Hamlet or Julius Caesar. But the little-known plays, which most people simply will never see in their lifetimes anywhere else, should have been trotted out in their Sunday best. This includes these Henry VI plays. The Henry VI plays should at least have the interest of a soap-opera -- which is basically what it is. It's a soap with a martial setting. Instead, it's just a confusing lot of sound and fury, signifying, in the long run, nothing.
I don't know where the blame lies. It may be Jonathan Miller, or it may be the director. Perhaps the BBC showed them their empty pockets and told them to do their best. Or maybe no one cared about these plays enough to present them with the respect they deserved.
Like the 1960s series "The Age of Kings" this version of the Henry VI plays had a lot of very good actors (some of whom I have seen performing better with less) ultimately unable to capture a willing suspension of disbelief.
One revelation was Mark Wing-Davey's Warwick. He's looks too young (Warwick was in his forties and Wing-Davey's in his thirties), but he does a magnificent job in the first performance I'd ever seen where he only has one head.
The Henry VI series has other high spots, but taken at a whole it's unnecessary strident; and it's especially wearying since the Henry VI plays are all very long (or does it just seem that way?) and have a lot of characters who are not adequately described. I followed along in my Arden.
Unfortunately, "The Age of Kings" eviscerated Henry VI, Part I, so this particular version is best chance most people will have of seeing the bulk of Henry VI, Part I. We who don't live with an easy access to Stratford have to take what we can get.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
We are entering the realm and reign of the last Lancaster king of the
red rose against the white rose of York. This rivalry is costing
England a lot: the successive defeats in France with the final death of
Talbot, Senior and Junior, the latter in the arms of the former, the
former the grave of the latter, the latter enhearsed in the embrace of
the former. Another red rose supporter negotiates a wife for his king
who still is a child, at the most a rather young teenager. And at the
same time Richard of York who has been reinstated in his dukedom and
made regent of France is forced by the clergy to accept a compromise
with Charles VII, a compromise that is meant to be humiliating and
binding under feudal law and oath. What the English forget is that this
long one hundred year war has created something that is far from
feudal: national feeling and pride in France with the change in
alliance of the Duke of Burgundy who plunges England into defeat when
he sides with the King of France. Shakespeare makes fun of Joan of Arc
and makes her pregnant of who knows who in the French court, many names
are uttered and none prevails. But it is not sure he understood the
real national feeling that emerged from this long historical episode
covering four or five generations (life expectancy down to hardly
twenty with the Black Death raging at the time. [
But the play is full of battles. The misery of war is represented I guess by the setting made up of old planks and boards, old disarrayed doors and other recuperated disparaged flotsam of some shipwreck retrieved from the Thames, the whole shabby construction in the shape and form of a central space surrounded by what would be houses, city walls, or any other urban building. It is mostly an all-purpose décor for the miserable dealings of the English crown with a situation they cannot even control since they are deeply divided and ready to riot at any time. The French king accepts the compromise imposed onto him on the advice of his counselors that he will be able to break it any time he wants, which is more than true since then the English crown and the regent of France, the Duke of York, first of all will have other errands to run and secondly other predators to take care of as well as other preys to gobble up, starting with this king of no dignity, authority and prestige. This production chose an actor, slightly too old for this first part, but so meager and so locked up onto and into himself, unable of any empathy or physical openness, that he looks like a teenager for sure, nearly effeminate, certainly not the siege of power and force. He is the perfect fence made of spiky chicken wire to keep the roaming scavenging beasts of prey away though not the flying vultures smoothly gliding and soaring overhead. [ ]
But the play is in many ways hilarious. Hilarious in this Henry VI that looks like some library rat cornered by the light and baffled by the promise of a woman he will call his wife. Hilarious with the innumerable running in and out, out and in of the various English and French soldiers with a few in between like the Burgundians or some other turncoats and volatile allies. Hilarious in the way they present Joan of Arc at first and the use of French words like Pucelle, and when they use an English word they come down to maid, which is a nice euphemism for her virginal state, at least today, maybe less in Shakespeare's time. Hilarious in the fake trial, the appearance of the "father," if he is, while she claims she is of noble descent, and her pleading for pardon and pity with arguments like being in child and trying to explain who the father is with multiple men who could be or have been. Hilarious in nearly every single scene that is made trite not out of spite but because they are trite with narrow minded people and obstinate asinine caricatures of soldiers, nobles or plain human beings.
Only one scene stands out though probably too long, especially since it is repeated as if we had not understood: it is the confrontation between Lord Talbot and his son John Talbot about saving their skins, or at least the skin of one to be able to get a vengeance or revenge. It is in a way empathetic though the boy seems stubborn and too feudal to be true. [ ]
The noble families of England and France are so intertwined and inbred that they are all English and French and they are all cousins of any rank. That makes such scenes like this one when acted properly, and it sure is the case, very heartfelt but it does not erase the sorry aftertaste they have: ridiculous values, vain glory, in many ways fake ethics and yet ethics nevertheless. They sound more pitiful and even pathetic than human, humane, sensitive and in any way sensuous or sensual. Manly sensual but sensual nevertheless. Impossible here. It is all prefabricated, standardized. When Shakespeare introduces some desire of a man for a woman, for example Henry VI for Margaret, it is some lascivious innuendo and when the Earl of Suffolk desires the same woman for his king it is purely perverse: to negotiate her freedom against her marriage with Henry VI so that he, the Earl of Suffolk, will be able to manipulate the king through his wife, and take advantage of the queen in the back of the king. In many ways disgusting. That's not tragic at all but extremely sinister and melodramatic.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
Opinion is divided as to whether William Shakespeare's King Henry VI,
Part 1 is the first-composed of a three part series or a prequel to a
two-part play written earlier. There is also speculation that the play
was written in part by other authors or not by Shakespeare at all
(mostly because of its vicious treatment of Joan of Arc), but that kind
of speculation is not limited to this particular play. Ratcheting up
the feeling of patriotism after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in
1588, William Shakespeare's King Henry VI, Part 1 is unabashed Tudor
propaganda and a reflection of the Lancastrian point of view. As a
propaganda tool, it is meant not only to unite England behind Queen
Elizabeth against foreign threats but to remind the English that a
house divided against itself cannot stand.
Covering English and civil affairs toward the end of the Hundred Years War, Part 1 covers events from the funeral of Henry V in 1422 to the death of Lord Talbot in France at the Battle of Castillon in 1453 and concludes with the marriage of the young King Henry VI to Margaret of Anjou. It has been pointed out that this play, as well as other history plays, present a muddled view of history, and most do not credit Shakespeare with using Holinshed and Hall's Chronicles as anything but a tool to further his dramatic imagination. In fact, Shakespeare may have rearranged the chronology of events so convincingly that today his versions of history are often mistaken for what actually occurred.
Marred by ludicrous casting decisions in the BBC Time-Life version from 1983 that put the 64-year-old Peter Benson as the 21-year-old King Henry VI and Brenda Blethyn, a 37-year old British actress with a pronounced Cockney accent as the 19-year-old French peasant warrior Joan of Arc, Jane Howell's film version of King Henry VI, Part 1 is true neither to accepted history nor to Shakespeare's vision. Since the King was a young man, the BBC moguls concluded that he must have been soft spoken, effete, and ineffectual and Peter Benson was chosen as the man for the job. Likewise, Ms. Blethyn portrays Joan of Arc as a prostitute and a witch, the way Shakespeare wrote her character.
When she is captured and brought to trial, she denies her common-born father saying she was conceived of richer blood, and then argues that she is a virgin, and then that she is pregnant, finally attempting to name three different fathers. Joan's dramatic entry into the war at Battle of Orleans is considered a turning point for the French and she was ripe fodder for English writers until the time she was canonized in 1920. Though in many respects this particular performance leaves much to be desired, there is some masterful writing, especially in the Temple Garden scene when York and Somerset declare war on each other, and, even in this much maligned production, there is much to be esteemed.
Shakespeare is always great (even Titus Andronicus is great).
This version -- or rather, this imagining -- of Shakespeare is horrid, however. It's embarrassingly low-rent. For what should have been filmed as "the definitive productions of Shakespeare," the first tetralogy are pathetically presented in a horrid avant-garde style that may have worked on a short-run on stage, but filmed for all time just make one embarrassed that this was the best they could do.
Fie, FIE, Aunty Beeb, and fie on the director and set designer and costume designer.
It makes me weep that THIS is what they did.
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