Reviewed by Emily Jones, Features Editor.
In a hauntingly modern conflation of three Shakespeare plays chronicling the Wars of the Roses, the Omidaze theatre company documents the conflicts between the two rival royal Houses of Lancaster and York in their fight for the throne, and the intricate plots that lead to the death of Henry VI. Staged in the Wales Millennium Centre, Henry VI offers an intense and unique promenade performance that entices audiences to climb into the atmospheric but usually inaccessible rooftop space known as ‘the void’.
The industrial and timeless interior further works to reinforce the play’s contemporary relevance and sets a captivating scene laced with tension. Transformed by set designer Gabriella Slade, the void is dark, bleak and raw; occupied by scaffolding, metal structures and ventilation shoots. The lack of any sort of stage, allowed for an exciting and unique theatre experience that worked to lead the audience on a journey that transcends time. With an aim to inspire and inform – to push boundaries and encourage new audiences, the play breaks all traditions about how Shakespeare should be performed and experienced. As a tale of conspiracy and treason, the Shakespearean rendition of the dynastic wars for the throne of England in the 15th century, is steeped in a political symbolism that is astonishingly pertinent in our violent and conflicted contemporary wold. Thus raising questions as relevant today as they were then, Henry VI expertly examines the destructive nature of the struggle for power.
The political nature of the play seamlessly lends itself to the exploration of gender expectations within theatre, and referring to the age old tradition where men play the female characters, the production challenges stereotypes and gender inequality by defying traditional conventions and casting women for every role. Director Yvonne Murphy’s aim to encourage the accessibility of Shakespeare allowed for an artistic and intense spectacle that enabled the audience to exist within the performance itself. Captivated, the audience is enticed forward to crowd around each scene; to stand against walls and sit on the floor or conveniently placed benches, before being aroused briefly by the cast and led through the dark set to the next act. Though offering an exciting dimension to the play, at almost three hours long, this constant upheaval and lack of available seating culminated in a certain sense of exhaustion and relief.
The aim to improve the accessibility of Shakespeare was further limited by Murphy’s ambitious decision to bridge three plays. Though causing as a side effect, an occasionally confusing and intricate narrative, the power and intensity of the storyline shined through the convoluted Shakespearean language. The cast too were exceptional and spellbinding, and did well to silently navigate the audience around the set without disruption. Though the tale of the Wars of the Roses is characterised by overt masculinity, the proficiency of each cast member left gender irrelevant in their ability to execute the classic characteristics of maleness.
Each cast member plays a myriad of characters, and while the narrative is complex, each role is delivered with perfect clarity. Lizzie Winkler, in her transformation from the overly confident and charming Duke of Suffolk to Richard (later Duke of Gloucester), steals the show. With mesmerising ease and skill, she embodies the blackest, most deceitful villain –knowing no loyalty and lacking all sense of emotion pray greed and hate. Her crooked posture, wild penetrating eyes and vicious speech pattern add a dark and sinister dimension to the narrative. In refreshing contrast to Winkler’s menace, Hannah O’Leary as Henry VI demonstrates a uniquely graceful performance; combining aerialist circus skills with complex and clearly delivered dialogue. This fascinating individualistic addition to the performance works well to emphasise the king’s youthful demeanour, whilst also working to elevate her character’s royal position.
The minimalist use of props allowed for a greater focus on the characters themselves, but the refreshing use of colour symbolism to signify conflict is greatly effective. Rose petals fall rather beautifully from the ceiling to indicate the bloody demise of each character. As a play shrouded in deceit, murder and death, this simple use of colour creates an artistic and emotionally poignant dimension to an otherwise bloodthirsty narrative.
Henry VI is a beautifully choreographed rendition of Shakespeare that encompasses all the traditional passion within a unique and contemporary style. In exploring the madness of war amongst a small cast of eight talented females, this age old tale is firmly and relevantly placed within our conflict-ridden modern society. Breaking down rigid gender roles, and encouraging a new appreciation and understanding of Shakespearean literature in a dark and captivating experience, Henry VI is a world away from your generic theatre production and well worth giving up your evening for. Whilst long and complex, you will be rewarded for your patience and attention; though be warned, wear comfortable shoes and light clothing, for the void exceedingly resembles a furnace.