Globe trots to St Albans Abbey for Shakespeare performance

LAST Sunday, St Albans Cathedral hosted the Globe Theatre’s ambitious production of all three parts of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, directed by Nick Bagnall. The epic production ran for around ten hours including breaks, next to the Abbey’s west entrance, which provided a magnificent, authentically historical backdrop. The production is touring to four of the battle sites mentioned in the plays, and gave its audience a real opportunity to reconnect with their city’s past.

The stage was a wonderfully interactive habitat for this low-tech production, with ladders, platforms and crow’s nests all used inventively by the ensemble. And ensemble they truly were, dancing in and out of major and minor characters with slick, dynamic commitment to the story. All effects were produced onstage, using bass drums, swords beaten against the set, and some beautiful choral singing. Simple stage tricks and clever choreographed movement achieved the effects of battles, swordfights and magic, rather inviting the audience to participate by suspending our disbelief than attempting to fool us.

The performances were incredibly energetic despite the production’s arduous demands, with some wonderful characterisation. Graham Butler’s sweet Henry VI was naively gauche, with a wide-eyed, skipping childishness which made him at once immensely sympathetic and patently unfit to rule. Beatriz Romilly’s animalistic Joan of Arc was an unstoppable force, with heartbreaking humanity in her defeat, while Mary Doherty’s powerful Margaret showed all the heart and stomach of the king that Henry should have been. Roger Evans was a likeable but brutally dogmatic Jack Cade, and Brendan O’Hea used his scene as Lewis XI of France as a fantastically camp comic cameo.

It was a fascinating examination of the history play as a genre, showing blood, grudges and severed heads accumulating relentlessly over Henry’s entire reign. Rumbling bass drum beats under the action began to sound like the ticking of time, and as the play ended with the newborn heir in the arms of the future Richard III the audience knew that this was, in fact, no real ‘end’.

The final battlefield performance will take place on Saturday 24th August at Monken Hadley Common in Barnet.