THEATRE / The horror, the horror: Henry VI Part 3 - RSC Other Place

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The Independent Culture
The futile horror of civil war is nowhere expressed with a keener clarity than in the scene at Towton in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 3. Withdrawn from the battle, the holy fool of a king dreams of the pastoral life of the common man, a fantasy brutally undercut by the approach of two symbolic, unnamed figures - a Son that has killed his Father, a Father that has killed his Son - whose grief, when they discover what they've done, puts paid to the idea that the ordinary person enjoys a charmed immunity from internecine strife.

It's this stark, emblematic side to the play and its affinities with medieval morality drama that clearly appeal to Katie Mitchell and have spurred her into reviving it as a free-standing work. The diagrammatic intensity is boosted by simple but compelling ideas. In the Towton scene, for example, the corpses of the Son killed by the Father and the Father killed by the Son are represented by roses of the opposing faction. When the murdering kin stare with horror at what they are holding in their hands, the fragile beauty of the flower brings home to you its incongruity as the logo for a war of butchery.

The animal imagery with which the battles are described finds its way into a soundtrack that resounds with the cries of wild beasts. The fighting is not staged but thrillingly implied as troops march on to intimidating drumbeats under swirling snow and then hurtle out to battle. At one point, in the tense pause before they make their deadly charge, the lovely drift of innocent birdsong drops into the moment like an ache of nostalgia and a moral judgement on the scene. Mitchell keeps us in mind of the pity of war by interposing sequences of liturgical lament. Misereres are sung over corpses and incense-wafting processions sweep across the bark-chip-covered stage.

Instead of sentimentalising the play, these ritual moments highlight the self-serving cynicism of the warmongering nobles, just as the Bayeux-like representation of St George slaying the dragon emblazoned on the back wall merely emphasises how, in a war that has largely degenerated into personal vendettas, national interests are increasingly overlooked. The production brings out well the black comedy implicit in much of this, as in the scene where the Yorkists are reduced to hurling taunts at the corpse of Clifford, who has tactlessly died before they could crow over him. Tom Smith's wizened skinhead of a Richard even plants a desecrating kiss on the dead man's lips.

Jonathan Firth's looks give Henry the right sort of peaky ethereality, but vocally he's too monotonous for the play's troubled, fallible conscience. One effect of presenting the piece on its own is to make Ruth Mitchell's powerful Margaret seem a woman more sinned against than sinning, a mother who rightly wants to see her disinherited son reinstated but who instead sees him hacked down. Far from seeming artistic faults, the almost comically relentless faction-swapping and the nagging inconclusiveness of the outcome impart a salutary sense of unpurged unease.