You’re seeing the show tonight: Henry VI, the first one in the trilogy. And I think you’re gonna need a little encouragement and support.
Me & you go all the way back to the 1980s, when we were callow, spotty youths with ceaseless erections & dreams of world conquest. We shared ownership of a mightily dreadful rock band called the Trash Can Junkies, which was 15 parts eyeliner to 1 part talent. Hampshire’s answer to Mötley Crüe (despite Mötley Crüe never having asked anything of the county, as far as I can make out), you played guitar & I made strange constipated noises into a microphone. You were an eye-popping cross between Keith Richards & Cher, while I channelled a heavy metal Worzel Gummidge. We were massive. In your front room.
Bin there, done that. From left: Me, you, Andy & Johnny.
Since those heady days of sex, drugs & weekly trips home to mother to get our washing done, we both moved on to pursue adult versions of the same thing. You wrote a number of books, one of them a legendary & extremely funny memoir about music and growing-up, Hell Bent for Leather: Confessions of a Heavy Metal Addict; (available from Amazon, peeps.)
– and are now lead pout & songwriter in gorgeous noodle-core folk-ish outfit from the south coast, Provincials.
You have a remarkable breadth of interest under the bonnet: musician, charity walker, darts enthusiast. (What you don’t know about Eric Bristow’s inspirational wrist-action is frankly an irrelevance.) You’re a guerrilla film-maker too. This is a wee thing you directed me in a few years back.
You are also a phenomenal book-worm. Your command of the vertiginous heights of literature is profound. From Byron to Bellow, from Mann to Milton, you bound through them all like a mountain goat of the intellect.
Which is why it’s always been a matter for intense personal head-scratching & inward contemplation that you just don’t get Shakespeare. Our friendship revolves around a number of cultural axes – eg: the history of the British party political conference, Donnington Monsters of Rock 1983, beer – all of which, obviously, rotate a little more furiously whilst sharing a pint beside a roaring fire. However, the wheel most assuredly stops spinning whenever Shakespeare comes into conversation. I can see the look of apprehensive obligation descend upon you whenever the Bard is briefly mentioned. As if contemplating a particularly troublesome stool just as you’re sitting down to watch a film. While I gibber away like an excitable girl attempting to explain One Direction, you look on, a bemused, uncomprehending grown-up.
Now, to be sure, my adored old chum, you are by no means unusual in this respect: your relationship to Shakespeare is the standard relationship most people have with him. To revel in the glorious canon of our national poet can sometimes be to gurn & gyrate with a few like-minded souls inside an enchanting but hermetically sealed echo-chamber. What a lot of actors forget is that listening to Shakespearean verse from a standing start is a wholly different beast to learning, rehearsing & honing it over & over again until the rhythm & meaning sit inside you pulsing away in lockstep with your heart. To a culture raised on the British grunt, the American wise-crack, or the indecipherable gibberish of social media, Elizabethan verse can seem distant, fusty, other. And it’s therefore our job as actors to shine the light of clarity & meaning upon this revered text using our bag of trusty theatrical tools: stressing the operative word, teasing out antithesis, not doing it pissed, etc.
Here’s the point: to watch a play by William Shakespeare is to watch the extremities of the human condition represented largely in verse. That is to say, imagine a woman able to express a nervous breakdown in exquisite poetry. The darkest fear, the foulest ambition, the sweetest joy, the most tormented fury, in language that nails that feeling profoundly, precisely & immediately. Opera’s earth-bound sibling. An acquired taste, for sure. But it can be acquired.
And to give yourself a chance to acquire it, I think it’s handy to have a vague outline of the plot of a given play before you start. To watch Henry VI, say, with its blizzard of earls, lords & government functionaries rattling around in the opening scenes must be as anxiety-inducing to the Shakespeare neophyte as when a rookie MP first takes her seat in the House of Commons: everyone looks frightfully important but God only knows how you’re supposed to remember who the hell everyone is & what they’re supposed to bloody do. An exercise in clinging on by your fingertips, I’m sure.
But you know what? There’s an app for everything these days. And in the spirit of helping you to have the most enjoyable evening as possible, you can consider this blog post your Wars of the Roses app, old cock.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin:
It all starts with a funeral. Superhero Henry V has popped his clogs leaving a nation bereft and an infant as heir to the throne. His brothers & cousins start a vicious spat over the coffin, during which a bloke turns up to tell them France is slipping through their fingers. Big brother Bedford swings into action, tools up & rushes off to save the day. Duke Humphrey of Gloucester (Lord Protector & Bedford’s brother), goes to change the Kid’s nappies, then crown him King Henry VI. Everyone else pops off to do some shopping. Leaving Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, alone, sulking & with nothing to do. He ‘secretly’ tells the audience he’s going to put a master plan into action to topple Gloucester & take power! Mmmwha-ha-ha-ha-ha.
So far, so Eastenders for the posh.
Meanwhile, in France, Joan of Arc is seducing the Dauphin, Charles, by duffing him up then whispering sweet nothings to him in a broad West Country accent. And then offers her services to help rid the land of the imperialist English. Where did she learn to fight like that? Does she really have a hotline to God? And who in the name of Christ is her hairdresser??
Joan of Arc
Back in England, some young men are arguing over some flowers. Richard Plantagenet thinks he has a superior family tree. My dad’s better than your dad. The Earls of Somerset & Suffolk beg to differ. Richard picks a white rose & claims it for York. Somerset picks a red rose & claims it for Lancaster. And then strops off. Plantagenet gets in a total tizzy about all this. The Earl of Warwick tells him to breathe & count to ten. The whole thing’s ludicrous. Seen more mature behaviour in an incubator unit. The start of something beautiful.
Plantagenet decides to check out his claim with the dying Earl of Mortimer, a wheezy old rebel who mounted his own challenge for the throne yonks back. And paid for it by spending the rest of his life behind bars. “It’s a mug’s game, sunshine. But if you must, you have my blessing. Now let me kick the bucket in peace.” Plantagenet decides to give it a crack anyway. With the help of the Earl of Warwick, he will instigate a master plan to eventually take the throne! Mwa-ha-ha-ha, etc.
Meanwhile, back in France, it’s all going terribly for the Brits. Commander of the English, John Talbot (Bruce Willis/Monty of Alamein) loses Orleans & has a good whine about it to a quisling Frenchie, Burgundy. If it wasn’t for that blasted Joan whatsit, we’d be sitting pretty. She’s on drugs, I tell you. And a witch. And a trollop. And French. Rather pleasing on the eye, mind. He’s interrupted mid-whinge by the arrival of Bedford, who plans to cheer them on from the sidelines ‘cos he’s too knackered & ill to join in.
Talbot & Burgundy then climb into Orleans through the bathroom window whilst the French are getting pissed, and bishes them good and proper. The French leave in a hurry and the English retake the city. Unfortunately, Bedford’s overdone the cheering & has expired. Another of the Agincourt old guard bites the dust. Baton being passed.
After Talbot & troops have removed Bedford’s body, Burgundy ‘secretly’ tells the audience that he plans to instigate a master-plan to double-cross the failing English & take power in France. Mwa-ha-ha-ha. *Sigh*
Back in London, we meet the young King for the first time. And, rather unfortunately for Somerset’s pride, the first thing the idiot does is decide to return Plantagenet’s conkers, meaning the next time we meet him, he’ll be the Duke of blinking York. For Pete’s sake! Edging ever closer to the throne & no-one seems to notice.
The Bishop of Winchester & Gloucester/ Lord Protector then have a row, but it’s all patched up by the King. As a conciliatory gesture, Gloucester gives away some of his power by saying he’ll abide by a majority vote of the council board. Crikey. Fledgling medieval democracy? My kinda guy.
However, at the end of the meeting, a messenger arrives with news of Bedford’s death. Trembling lip, manly swallowing. Ok, in that case, let’s cross the Channel & crown the Kid in France. Clever. And let’s reinforce Talbot with forces under the joint command of sworn enemies, Somerset & new Duke of York. Not so clever.
In France, Joan persuades Burgundy to change sides. I’ll never drink the stuff again. Cheese-eating surrender monkey.
In Paris, the Kid is crowned King.
Talbot gets a medal, & York is officially promoted. Somerset & York have another set-to involving their stupid roses, & dopey King Henry forces them to be nice to each other & hold hands. Yeah right.
Back to war. On the Western front, Talbot gets encircled by Burgundy & the Dauphin, & sends a desperate message for reinforcements to York & Somerset. Good luck with that.
York says he can’t provide because Somerset hasn’t come up with the goods. Somerset accuses York of lying and … oh whatever … here have the bloody horses, you little prick. Too late: Talbot & his son go down fighting, and there’s not a dry eye in the house. The French appear to be rather pleased though.
Now returned to London, King Henry’s court gets wind of Talbot’s death. Trembling lip, manly swallowing, etc. Word also arrives that ‘the Emperor & the Pope’ (ie: the UN security council) would like the English & the French to call a truce. To help this along, Gloucester persuades the Kid to get engaged to the daughter of the Earl of Armagnac, a French bigwig. Savvy political marriage. Interestingly, that old rascal, the Bishop of Winchester, is to be the Pope’s ambassador in negotiations, after having been made a Cardinal by His Holiness. Amazing what money can buy. He ‘secretly’ tells the audience that his plan to get rid of Gloucester is going well. Mwa-ha-ha-ha. Again.
In France, Joan’s having a great time. Paris is in revolt against les rosbif now Talbot’s popped it. All we need now is a full-frontal assault by some brave Frenchies. But what’s this? York is on the way freshly reinforced by Warwick? Not so brave now. Ha, take that, you filthy garlic-munchers! Now let’s finish off the witch.
During the carnage, there’s an exodus of refugees. Amongst them is a sexy young princess called Margaret of Anjou. William de la Pole (pronounced Poole), Earl of Suffolk, spots her & rather likes what he sees. Trouble is, he’s already married. So he decides to give her to the King back home as a present. And then have his way with her behind the throne. And through her, control the King and gain power! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha – oh for crying out loud, they’re all at it.
Right, let’s put Joan the witch on trial, then burn her. But I’m not a witch. I’m nice. I’m pregnant. Please don’t burn me. Shut-up! Some petrol, some matches & some marshmallows: job’s a good ‘un. Right, now that’s done, let’s bargain with the Frogs. And here’s old Winchester to arbitrate. The Dauphin manages to cut a great deal and York’s gutted. After all, he was rather hoping to take a tour through these pretty French villages once he’s grabbed the English crown. Warwick tells him to breathe & count to ten.
Back home, Smoothey Suffolk delivers Margaret to the teenage King & smirks a lot. The Kid gets an instant stiffy: very pleased. Gloucester/Lord Protector: less pleased. Bang goes the Armagnac proposal, & Suffolk’s arranged an appalling deal for the Margaret marriage, handing over yet more crucial bits of France & a shed load of cash. And all for a woman whose dad is king of a garden shed in the middle of nowhere. Annoyed ain’t the word. Gloucester strops off. York’s quite cross aswell: yet more pretty villages down the drain. Furious with Suffolk. Old Winchester stays behind & suggests forgetting about Suffolk for now & instead forming a dastardly alliance to topple Duke Humphrey. Warwick & York agree. But when Winchester exits, Warwick tells York to breathe & count to ten. And let Winchester, Suffolk, Gloucester et al to hang themselves, ultimately leaving the field clear for York to take power! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. Yes, I think we’ve got the message now, you two.
Mr & Mrs Gloucester/Lord Protector have a row in their back garden about a dream: she’s clearly got plans for, um, a bigger garden, so to speak. He tells her to pipe down. She then instructs a local crim to organise a seance so she can ask the Devil for help in her ambitions to be Queen! Mwa-ha-ha-ha. Streuth, her aswell. *rolls eyes.*
As it turns out, the crim’s being paid by Suffolk to stage a pretend seance to get Mrs Gloucester into trouble. Oops! Silly girl.
Next, there’s a big meeting to decide who’s going to be Regent of France: Somerset or York. Margaret gate-crashes it. And look, she’s pregnant. Who’s the father??? You decide! Blimey, she’s got a tongue on her too. Turns into a right old argy-bargy. In the end, Somerset gets the gig & off to France he goes. And that’s the last of him we’ll see in this play. (Audience & cast devastated/must somehow carry on without him.)
After the meeting, Suffolk & Margaret stay behind for a secret snog. The Queen’s pissed off with everyone, but especially Mrs Gloucester, Duke Humphrey’s proud, full-of-it wife. Suffolk calms her down. He’s set a trap for her. And through her downfall will Duke Humphrey meet his end, & then we’ll run the show and take power! Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. (OK, suppose Margaret needs to have a go.)
The party trick to raise the Devil back at Mrs Gloucester’s place goes splendidly. Sound effects, dry ice, silly voices, the works. Also, Derren Brown with a mad beard & a Brummy accent. Police, led by smoothey Suffolk, barge in & catch Mrs Gloucester up to sommat devilish. Game over, lady. Caught red-handed. Right royal stitch-up.
Meanwhile, in St Albans, the court are out hawking when they encounter a blind cripple who has miraculously regained his sight after a visit to the shrine. It’s bollocks, of course, and the chap’s clearly on the make – but it’s a diversion of sorts, allowing the aristocrats a chance to laugh at the morons they’re supposed to govern. They’re interrupted by Suffolk who brings news of Mrs Gloucester’s naughty behaviour with a sea-side magician. Duke Humphrey is suspended from duty whilst everyone else (save the Kid) secretly rubs their hands with glee.
Back at the palace, they all gang up on Gloucester and have him arrested. Henry, the fool, just stands there & lets it heppen. Warwick starts plans to have Gloucester put to death – but impatient Suffolk thinks things should be given a bit of a push & decides to do the deed himself straight away. A messenger rushes in & declares Ireland to be having a massive rave without permission, so everyone decides York should be given charge of an army to close it down. York rather happy with this state of affairs: ‘Twas men I lacked, and you will give them me.” Bloody idiots. Now there’ll be trouble. Once more, for old times sake: Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha. Now stop, please.
Henry wants to try Gloucester straight away, but it’s too late. Suffolk returns to say he’s dead. The Kid faints. Warwick then enters & really stirs the pot by saying the mob are up in arms because they’ve heard Duke Humphrey’s been done in. Warwick goes to check the body. Then comes back & accuses Suffolk of murder. Cunning old fox. Fisty-cuffs. Daggers drawn. The kid not happy. Then Exeter enters to report that the proles now blame Suffolk for Gloucester’s death (they’re all clearly in the next room listening through the wall) & they want him dead or banished. The Kid complies. Margaret pleads – but to no avail: Suffolk is sent packing. He & Margaret are given one final tear-jerking send-off (it’s like the last scene in Brief Encounter, just a bit more shouty) and that’s it. Suffolk’s out.
As he leaves, he’s set upon by some Cockneys and has his head cut off – which they post in a box back to the palace.
Meanwhile, Henry is visiting old bully, Winchester, who’s had some sort of a turn & now babbles like a lunatic in a wheelchair. And then cops it. It’s a hideous death. And then Margaret comes in screaming, clutching Suffolk’s head like a baby. Jesus, it’s like a scene from Saw.
So, this is how we leave them & prepare for the next play: Henry bereft, mourning his beloved uncle, Duke Humphrey, for whose death he partly blames his wife. Margaret distraught for her lover, Suffolk, for whose death she partly blames her husband. God, what a mess. God, what a marriage. I wonder if it could survive a civil war?
I really hope this helps, old mucker. Read the above twice, then sit back & let it all wash over you. Meet in the bar afterwards.