Blackfriars Playhouse: “The Fall of King Henry”

Late last night, my cab from the airport crossed over the recently named Martin Luther King, Jr. bridge in Staunton. I nearly missed it for the dark; my ride-share, a very kind director from California, pointed it out. I have never been to Virginia, but I’m thrilled to be finally attending what many scholars consider to be their favorite academic convening: the biennial Blackfriars Conference at the American Shakespeare Center.

Along with full days of top-notch papers—Tiffany Stern, Paul Menzer, Jim Marino, Claire Bourne, and Christina Dennehy all in one day!—the schedule permits conference-goers the chance to see the full complement of productions running at the re-created indoor Jacobean space. (We also learned that all the innovative thinking about early modern theatre architecture and archeology is happening in New Zealand and Australia.) Tonight, “The Fall of King Henry (3 Henry VI),” tomorrow “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” and for dessert, “Much Ado About Nothing.” Having been dispirited by seeing the “Much Ado” recently concluded at Shakespeare’s Globe in London this past August, it is nice to be back in a performance space still interested in being a site to test ideas about early modern performance.

Greg Brostrom as King Lewis XI and Shunté Lofton as Lady Bona in The Fall of King Henry (Henry VI, Part 3). American Shakespeare Center. Photo by Lindsey Walters.

And test it they do. Like any original practice endeavor that has to actually stay solvent in our current theatre industry, Blackfriars has to pick and choose. Universal lighting (their favorite catchphrase, “we do it with the lights on”) and continuous action were well in use. Both doors were used for entrances and exits, however, which several scholars including Lynn Tribble has shown would have worked against the logic of performance in the period. (I.e., always enter and exit from the same door.) The costumes were sumptuous and thoughtful, as was delivery and dialogue, where every detail mattered and was conveyed. While I am a firm believer that you’ve got to see as much bad Shakespeare as good to be a thoughtful student of the form, it is always inspiring to see well-researched, well-funded, and well-acted stagings.

So why am I not effusive?

I think this might be because this was a very good version of every other one I’ve seen before. The War of the Roses plays are in vogue at the moment, forming the centerpieces to several theatre festivals and TV series, not to mention the source material for Game of Thrones. All of the stage versions in the last ten years have done relatively the same thing: a screaming Margaret, a villainous Richard, a foppish Henry.

Allison Glenzer as Margaret d’Anjou roars across the stage in a show of female empowerment. At moments playful, she stays in that same emotional place until the slaying of her Ned. Occasionally a sarcastic or malicious delivery works its way in, but the character has no arc. In this play, she’s motivated to get her son back on the throne and fix the problem her king has created. Stuck out of time, we forget she has just lost her real beloved, Somerset, at the end of the previous play (who is also likely Ned’s real father). She’s enraged from the first moment onstage and she gets stuck at that maxed-out volume for the rest of the show. No hints of mourning, longing, or a set of more complex emotions propelling her decisions (and eventual suicide wish).

It isn’t just Margaret. Chatting with a colleague at intermission, we both wished for a different take on Henry as the bookish and religious king rather than the naive fop that everyone seems to love to play, especially on film. Again, having wilted from the first act, Chris Johnston didn’t seem to have any new hills or valleys to traverse with his character. Without this, his measuring his own suffering as worse than a father who finds his dead son and a son who discovers his dead father on the field of battle seems a waste of time. We know he’s cowardly, so why this moment? In his last scene, Richard mocks him for being so deeply in his books; if he is learned here, how can he be so naive previously? It is certainly a choice, but we’ve seen it, most recently in The Hollow Crown.

Richard is a delicious part, and René Thornton, Jr. is thoughtful in every movement and delivery. He opts for the elongated leg, hump carefully tailored to, and an immobile left hand supported by a shield that makes him very effective in battle. I’ve got a theory about Richard, however; the decision is not how to present his body, but to decide at what point the berating flips the switch—the moment all the hate turns him into a villain. Again, if he’s bad from he start, he’s got nowhere to go, the character has no arc. And there are so many moments in this tetralogy where his vile body is narrated to his face. As a director, the crucial decision seems to be which one of these cruel speech-acts, these acts of communal bullying, pushes him over the edge. Certainly it is Henry’s describing of Richard’s body that gets him killed in the end. Is this the turning point? In the play “Richard III,” could we see Anne’s agreement to marry him a possible moment of near salvation, a chance to turn back the clock if he started in a place we might want to recover him to. He is a loyal son and brother when we first meet him, after all.

Some additional implications to giving Richard’s character arc. First, if he is morally corrupt from the start, then the logic of the play leads us to believe that he deserves his body. His disfigurement and disability are warning colors to the rest of us that what is rotten on the outside is rotten on the inside. Watch out. This kind of logic is heart-breaking and dangerous in a day-and-age when we still cannot come to terms with a range of (dis)abilities, all the worse if we equate that which a person cannot control, the quality of their bodies, with that which they can, their moral compass. He has to have room to fly or fall, otherwise the play validates an ability-discriminatory sentiment. Furthermore, the text gives him room to fly or fall.

Second, casting: don’t make your only main actor of color the bad guy. Cast more people of color is the only right answer here. Yes, the production also included the excellent Shunté Lofton, but she was only given bit parts. She was also double-cast more than any other actor in the show, playing five different major speaking roles. So one actor of color was given the bad guy, and the other made to do more work than everyone else. And then there was no in-between, no other cultures or backgrounds represented in the bodies of the actors, as all the others presented as white.

Yes, it’s Virginia, but it is only an hour from Charlottesville. I crossed a bridge dedicated to the leader of the Civil Rights Movement to get here. Is it too much to ask for arc(h)?

  • The American Shakespeare Center‘s production of The Fall of King Henry plays at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, VA, 7 September to 25 November 2017.
  • Tickets available online or at the box office.
  • Follow along with the conference on Twitter: #BFConf17.

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