The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Killer Queen

Another BBC Shakespeare review. Apologies for the bad language and for the pathetically transparent attempts to disguise it using asterisks.

Henry VI Part 3

In my Troilus & Cressida rant I neglected to mention that it has the distinction that the events it portrays have served as the inspiration for a blockbuster movie, at least two Doctor Who stories and a song by  ABBA. Other songs inspired by Shakespeare include Romeo & Juliet, Richard III and the little-known Echobelly B-side Pericles Prince of Tyre.

The events of Henry VI Part Three have sadly not served as the inspiration for a song by ABBA. If ABBA had chosen to write a song about it, it would probably have been one of their up-tempo numbers.

Reading up on the subject, I discover that some scholars are not sure how much of this, and the other Henry VIs, to attribute to Shakespeare. Certainly they lack much in the way of poetry, or rich characterisation - but this is because they have so much plot - particularly in the case of Henry VI Part 3 - there just isn't room for any of the characters to stand around and start talking about whether or not this is a dagger I see before me, I mean I know it came in a box marked STABBER 3000 and it says dagger on the receipt but it might just be a very large dirk.

The point I just digressed from making is that although much of these plays may appear derivative and uncrafted by comparison with later plays, I think the whole Shakespeare thing’s a much richer experience if we do embrace the concept of him having 'juvenilia' rather than pretending that his genius popped into being fully-formed with Richard III and everything beforehand was written by someone else.

Nevertheless it is easy to see how some might reach that conclusion with one scene in Henry VI, where the eponymous king wanders about a battlefield talking about how he would much rather be a shepherd than a king. He sits down to pick a buttercup - it being a battle, there are several discarded buttocks lying about (Joke (c) Stephen Fry) - and then, what should happen but! he overhears to his left one soldier crying about how he has inadvertently killed his son during the battle - then, to his right, he hears another soldier crying about how he has inadvertently killed his father.

Now, the sentiment behind this is lovely, and the compare-and-contrast between the woes of the father, the son and the king is worked through beautifully, but - let's face it - it has all the subtlety of A RHINOCEROS WIELDING A SLEDGEHAMMER. You can imagine people heckling in the audience, 'Is there anyone in this f*cking battle who hasn't accidentally killed a member of their own family? This ticket cost me a groat!'

So either Shakespeare was getting a bit of 'ooh, war is a bad, m'kay' moralizing off his chest - something not uncommon amongst novice writers - or this scene was the work of someone else. Possibly even that much-loved star of the DWM strip, Robert Greene.

Anyway, this - and the other Henry VIs - are the work of a writer who is more concerned with plot - and giving the actors excuses to hit each other with swords, and to set off explosions and use lots of false blood - than in portraying the events in any great depth. As I said with one of the earlier plays, it really is like watching 24 - people getting killed willy-nilly, traitors changing sides, an implausibly rapid turnover of personnel at the top of the organisation, and a girl in a very tight top being menaced by a cat.

I suppose a criticism of this play would be that it is overly plot-oriented, but I wouldn't make that criticism because I f*cking love plot-oriented. Give me lots of plot any day. And I have to say that the war of the roses lends itself to this beautifully; there are twists galore, with both Warwick and George changing sides (and George changing back again!) Basically, if it wasn't real history you would write it off for being utterly implausible. You just can’t make this shit up.

So what happens? Well, it's a play of two halves, which is fortunate because halves come in twos. It begins with the Duke of York - who, I may have mentioned, is a heroic fella in the Jack Bauer mould. He persuades the King - Henry VI, a guileless and weak-spirited guy who just wants a read the bible all the time - to make him heir to the throne instead of Henry VI's son Edward. This pisses off Mrs Henry VI, Margaret, no end. She recruits Clifford, a mad bastard homicidal hack-and-slash psychopath of the first order.

The Duke of York has three sons - Edward, George and Richard. Edward's the brave one, Richard's the clever one and George is the other one. However, it turns out he has a fourth son, called Rutland (possibly he was following the Victoria Beckham approach to nomenclature at this point, we just don't know). However, barely has Rutland turned up than he is killed by Margaret and Clifford. And then the Duke of York is killed too, which is a shame, because I rather liked him. He was played by a wild-eyed Bernard Hill.

Anyway, there's another battle, and Clifford is killed - serves him right, he was a meany -and Edward declares himself King Edward IV. Henry VI is captured and sent to the tower. Margaret f*cks off to France with her and Henry VI's son, also called Edward.

Somewhere around this point Henry VI is shown a little kid called Richmond. In another of those 'Penny Lane - I know, I'll write a song about that one day!' moments of curious character clairvoyance, Henry VI observes that Richmond looks a bit 'kingy'. Richmond will, of course, later turn out to be Henry VII, but that's another play.

Second half of the play is about Edward IV's brief tenure as someone with roman initials after their name. Basically, his downfall can be attributed to one thing - his cock.

What happens is that shortly after he becomes King, Edward IV is petitioned by a woman called Elizabeth Gray. 'F*ck me, she has smashing tits', Edward observes. (I am using the Morris Notes translation here). 'I've lost all me land in the civil wars', pleads Elizabeth, 'And I have three kids to feed, please help me'. 'F*ck me, she has smashing tits', Edward observes once more and then, seizing his opportunity, he says, 'You do me a favour, and I'll do you a favour, wink wink.'

'Of course I'll do you a favour' says Elizabeth, 'You are king, after all.' 'Yes I am, I have the hat to prove it,' says Edward, 'But I'm not sure you've grasped quite what sort of favour I have in mind. And what I have in mind does involve grasping.'.'Well what sort of favour is it then?' asks Elizabeth. 'Well, to put it frankly', says Edward, 'You can have your land back if you'll give us a shag'.

'No way!' says Elizabeth appalled. 'Oh alright, what about a blowie then?' says Edward. 'No, not even a blowie!' says Elizabeth.

'Oh sod it', says Edward IV. 'She does have really smashing tits... Elizabeth, will you give us a shag if I make you my queen?' 'Of course,' she replies, kneeling down before her king, 'And would you like your blowie?'

Now, you may think I am being crude, but to be honest, this is nothing compared to the jokes that Richard is making in this scene. He is one dirty-minded little f*cker.

Problem is Edward IV has already sent Warwick to France to set him up with the French King's daughter. Who is called 'Bona'. (Which is ironic, really, because that's precisely what Edward IV had in his trousers in the previous scene... ) The fact that Edward IV has married Elizabeth pisses off the French King, it pisses off Warwick... and back home, the fact that Edward IV has just pissed off the two people he needed NOT to piss off to stay in power also pisses off George and Richard.

George decides to join forces with Warwick and Margaret against Edward IV. Richard, meanwhile, remains 'loyal', though - and this is the first proper appearance of the character we see in Richard III - he believes he should be king. Before this point, Richard had seemed like quite a nice guy, but now he is well wicked.

There's another battle, and Edward IV is captured by Margaret. He's then rescued by his followers. George changes sides and joins forces with his brother again. There's another battle. Edward IV wins this one, kills the Edward who is Henry VI's son in front of Margaret - which seems rather callous - and then doesn't kill Margaret - which seems even more callous. Margaret is then exiled.

Margaret here is played Julia Foster, who does a fantastic job of going from the firty young thing of Part One to the power-hungry bitch of Part Two to the really-scary-lady of Part Three to the embittered-old-crone of Dick III. Top trivia fact - she is the only character to have lines in 4 Shakespeare plays. Henry VI appears in 4 but he's dead in one of them so doesn't count.

Anyway, that's pretty much it, and all that's left to be done is for Richard to kill Henry VI, which is a lovely cliffhangy moment for the play to end on... if only I hadn't already watched Dick III, that one would be next. So the one thing I have learnt from this is this - if you're going to watch these plays, don't watch Dick III before Part Three.

To summarize; another really great one, this - lots of killings, very fast-paced, hugely enjoyable, but not for those who like their bard to be all poncey.

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