Fickle, brittle heads of state fight for the crown of our “miserable England” in this uneven pairing of the Globe ensemble’s Henry VI and Richard III. The flesh of these plays – framed by the Wars of the Roses – is conflict, but these mud-caked productions are devoid of context. As a result, tension seeps away. Instead, the hardworking cast are squeezed for laughs in an aesthetically messy world led by floppy, floundering leaders.
The first part of the Henry VI trilogy is cut and the latter two plays are meshed together. While the cuts are neat and the text is clear, the pacing suffers and both plays feel rushed. By the end of Henry VI (★★★), it feels as though a speedier murder might move things along.
Jonathan Broadbent is our doughy King Henry VI, weakly abdicating responsibility at every turn. Wearing a hoodie while others are in mismatched suits, he is suitably feeble. The action revolves around him rather than because of him. Yet his cowardice is less well-meaning than vaguely dull. Broadbent is far more dynamic as the bumbling Buckingham in Richard III.
The play is uncomfortable at first, a clustered tableau of a family portrait overused. As the play finds its feet, directors Sean Holmes and Ilinca Radulian dive into the imagery of the sport of war, arming York’s gang with golf clubs and rounders bats. The cast of 10 wear sports kits emblazoned with their characters’ names, which helps us keep up. But as loyalties shift, shirt-swapping happens so frequently that each betrayal feels as inconsequential as picking up the wrong kit bag.
Where the rest of the play is pushed too hard for laughs, Sarah Amankwah and Steffan Donnelly balance brutality and humour. Amankwah is dripping with easy greed as the laddish King Edward; whenever she is on stage, she steals it. Donnelly exudes a wild grace as the wronged Queen Margaret, her rise from ethereal nerves to vengeful agony a pleasure to watch. When she first appears in Richard III, muddied and bloodied like a cursing corpse bride, everyone scurries back; even the candelabras run away.
The mucky end of Henry VI runs smoothly into Richard III (★★), in which Sophie Russell’s slippery king flails for a personality. Like an improv exercise, Russell responds to the insults thrown at her – crawling when described as a spider, snarling and biting when spoken of as a dog – rather than developing a sense of the words responding to her character. With no physical deformity, and therefore no societal shunning, the king’s spite has little structural justification. But the most grating thing is her delivery. She sounds like she’s about to launch into rap, which, here, is jarring.
The comedy is more at ease here, the lighting more inventive, and the brilliant band melts seamlessly into the drama. There’s smart use of role doubling, too, as the ghosts blend in with the living: Ratcliffe approaches in George’s blood-covered clothes and Richard has to get nose to nose to recognise his sometime friend.
But again, the court scenes are ungrounded; we need constant reminding that there’s a war going on outside. Without a strong enough pull towards the personal or political, the production thrashes about. The teams switch shirts until they’re so muddied you can no longer tell – nor care – which side anyone’s on.
Henry VI and Richard III are at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, London, until 26 January.