‘Why, I can smile, and murder whilst I smile,” confesses the crookbacked Richard, Shakespeare’s deliciously black-hearted aspirant to the throne. And murder he does.
Beginning this weekend at the Circle Theatre, Richard plots and butchers his way to the crown in The Assassination of Henry VI (or Henry VI, Part Three), the ninth installment of Pacific Repertory Theater’s four-year, ten-play “Royal Blood” series.
Masterfully retelling the most exciting 150 years in English history, Shakespeare’s tremendously entertaining 15th century soap operas build to a feverish, blood-splattered pitch with The Assassination of Henry VI. PacRep’s ambitious project to mount Shakespeare’s histories is an amazing accomplishment for a regional theater company in today’s economic climate, and this production is no exception.
“Of all the histories, it’s the most exciting,” says director Stephen Moorer. “It’s relentless. It’s constant action and movement. People being beheaded and assassinated left and right. Family squabbles and entangled relationships to the utmost degree. Cliffhanger endings, people switching sides, manipulations and intrigue.”
Of course, you needn’t worry if you missed the first two parts of Henry VI. This isn’t Twin Peaks. Each of Shakespeare’s histories stands on its own. Regardless, it’s good to have a little background before you go.
The Henry VI plays tell the story of England’s War of the Roses. Like most historical conflicts, this one begins with the death of a king, Henry V. When the child-king Henry VI is crowned in France, a fierce power struggle erupts among the English nobility. Taking advantage, Joan of Arc does her thing in France, taking back a bunch of recently-seized land from the English, until she’s caught and burned at the stake.
Meanwhile, back in England, Richard Plantagenet (later the Duke of York) quarrels with John Beaufort (later the duke of Somerset, of the House of Lancaster). Plantagenet plucks a white rose as a symbol of his house, and Beaufort picks a red rose, thus starting in motion the long and bitter civil war.
What follows is a complex and bloody series of political machinations that results in York raising an army in Ireland and returning to defeat the House of Lancaster—to which King Henry belongs—at the battle of St. Albans. Henry, defeated, promises the throne to the House of York when he dies; but scheming on both sides soon starts the war again, with Queen Margaret leading the Lancastrians.
This is roughly where Henry VI, Part Three begins. York and his son, Edmund, are killed in battle, leaving his other sons, Edward, Clarence, and the hunchbacked Richard—Shakespeare’s greatest villain—to carry on the war against Henry and the House of Lancaster.
It is remarkable that PacRep has retained their lead actors throughout the Henry VI productions, managing a rare and wonderful continuity from play to play for audiences who have been able to watch the series unfold.
In the House of York, Rick Hamilton plays the Duke, while Travis Brazil and Tim Hart portray his Machiavellian sons, Edward and Richard. Doug Ambort is the Duke of Warwick. In the House of Lancaster, David Mendelsohn portrays Henry VI and Emily Jordan is Queen Margaret.
“A number of them are killed in Part Three,” Moorer says. “And the rest go on to Richard III to die.”
Richard III, the final installment of the Royal Blood series, opens on Aug 20 at the Circle and will run concurrently with Henry VI, Part Three into October as part of the Carmel Shakespeare Festival, which also includes the West Coast premiere of Elizabeth Rex on Sept, 9 at the Golden Bough, and Twelfth Night at the Outdoor Forest Theatre, which opens Sept 30.
Richard III is a pleasure to watch because, when Shakespeare’s twisted, pathological character is finally allowed to come wholly to center stage, his complex pathos and deep-seated self-hatred come right along with him. From convincing Edward IV to send his own brother to jail because his name starts with a “G” to his well-deserved end on the battlefield squawking, “A Horse! A Horse! My kingdom for a horse!”, Richard’s wicked trajectory of power is a blast.
Elizabeth Rex, written five years ago by Canadian playwright Timothy Findley, imagines William Shakespeare and the formidable Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, brought together in a remarkable encounter. Rob Bundy and star Sally Edmundson, both of whom helped make the national premiere in Houston a hit, will direct PacRep’s production.
The festival concludes with Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s romantic comedy. Guest directed by Rick Hamilton and Fredi Olster, this enormously entertaining comedy features romance and mistaken identities, gender-bending role reversal and romantic infatuation, where affairs of the heart lead to sidesplitting consequences.
Henry VI, Part 3 is one of ten plays in Shakespeare’s “Royal Blood” series at the Circle Theatre.