Year of Shakespeare: Henry VI Part Three

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This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Henry VI Part Three, National Theatre of Bitola, dir. by John Blondell, 13 May 2012 at The Globe, London

By Pete Orford

Clearly no-one told the Macedonians that the history plays are all about men with little to no roles for women: this production brilliantly championed the feminine, from the obvious icon of Margaret to the surprising decision to cast Warwick as a woman. This is not to detract from the male performers, who all did admirable jobs – the sons of York in particular – but by far the most distinctive aspect of this Henry VI Part Three compared to all those before it was this new emphasis on women vying for love and power. Margaret and Warwick showed two extremes of the woman in battle. Margaret (Gabriella Petrushevska)  first entered in a glamorous blue dress with a large white frill and red shoes from a fairy tale, looking for all the world like Snow White taking after her stepmother; after the scene ended with her intentions to lead the armies in spite of her husband, she next entered in military dress, but still looking immaculate in a perfectly cut dress suit that flattered her waist, and still wearing the red high heels, as much a leader of fashion as of men. Warwick (Sonja Mihajlova), in contrast, was sombre and shapeless in a long overcoat, wearing a black headscarf suggestive of a woman in mourning: thus one led by flaunting her femininity while the other led in spite of it.

It would be wrong of me not to commend the men in this production – Ognen Drangovski towered above his fellow actors as Edward, especially Martin Mirchevski’s diminutive Richard, who had the unenviable task of winning an audience over to his machinations with soliloquies in another language, a task which I’m pleased to report he succeeded in. The grand reveal of Richard’s murderous plans at the end of the first half was a torrent of outpouring as he finally opened up and let his true self show. Even without an understanding of the language, the passion and savagery of his thoughts was ably conveyed. But for all the physical power and aggression of the men, time and again it was the women who showed themselves as the superior forces behind the disputes. To support this, each battle scene involved the men dancing and acting out death after death, while in the foreground a woman was portrayed either as formidable or dignified: at Wakefield, for example, it was Margaret; when the battle sequence was done, and all the men lay dead, she walked calmly and dispassionately across the stage, surveying the carnage done in her name.

The best scene of the production, for my money, was in the court of the French King, who again was played by a woman (Kristina Hristova Nikolova). The male characters had frequently shown themselves partial to display and bravado (when the lusty Edward IV was captured, he was caught literally with his pants down, and had to shuffle off stage in handcuffs with his trousers still round his ankles), so in this scene, when Warwick, Margaret and the King/Queen sat round the table drinking spirits they were able to get down to the real business of politics without men to distract or interrupt. The young prince Edward lay slumped unconscious on the table, while on the other side was the Lady Bona, played brilliantly by Valentina Gramosli as giggly, perky and flirty, table-dancing cheerily to the music of the band while her fate was discussed by those around her. Gramosli also doubled as the Lady Grey, who was seen cavorting on stage with her new husband Edward irrespective of his approaching brothers, if she was lusty, she was so on her terms, and unapologetic for it.

The more significant portrayal of women was as mothers. Lady Grey was seen talking to her brother Rivers (played by Ivan Jercic in lace gloves and feathers) while in the throes of morning sickness, her concern for her captured husband continually deferring to the symptoms of her impending motherhood. Margaret’s son was an able accomplice and sidekick; Nikolche Projchevski’s smirking portrayal of the young prince showed him up as the school bully: taunting, smug, cruel. He followed his mother’s every move like a dutiful admirer, supporting her in her most vicious moments: it was he who carried York’s severed head gleefully up to the gallery to put it on display. Thanks to the rapport and relationship developed by both Petrushevska and Projchevski, the death of Prince Edward was always going to be an emotional climax as Margaret truly lost a part of herself, and the scene, when it came, did not disappoint, earning a well-earned spontaneous applause from the audience after Margaret’s heartbreak and desolation was admirably portrayed. Warwick’s death was a different tragedy; the battle at Barnet again involved the men miming various deaths while Warwick danced a mournful dance, stripped of her headscarf and coat to reveal her frail form beneath. The ensuing soliloquy in which she recognised the futility of pursuing power held new implications given the way she had been physically altered from warrior to maiden; she re-embraced femininity at the end, and rather than die on stage, she walked proudly off stage, a victor in death.

Lady Grey’s finale was equally defined by womanhood, and the proud presentation of her new son and future king, represented on stage by a white rose lovingly carried on blanket. The blistering heat of the midday sun that had heralded the start of the trilogy had by now given way to the night sky above us, and after the sons of York had all sworn their duty to the babe, the mother and child were left alone on stage, she singing a lullaby to the baby, a triumphant symbol of the maternal bond promising hope after the onslaught of violence we had all of us just endured.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Please add your thoughts to the discussion thread below!


To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.


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Listen below to an interview with the director, recorded by the Globe Education Department:


Look below to see what others have to say about this interpretation:

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Author:Pete Orford

Pete's doctoral thesis followed and challenged the development of the history cycle on the English stage. Most recently he has published several books and articles on Charles Dickens and the lesser-known author Fitz-James O'Brien; a full profile of his research and publications can be found at
  • Pete_Orford

    Thanks Erin. One of those injustices frequently aimed at the histories is that they are male dominated, but I’d argue against this. In the comedies and tragedies many roles are gender specific – fathers/mothers, husbands/wives etc, but in the histories there are less domestic relationships and far more political relationships, so actually it is less jarring to have Warwick as a woman than, say, Claudius as a woman. And as you say, it opens up new dimensions to the plays, as in the French court scene here where suddenly it became about women plotting without the men.

    Also, whereas in Shakespeare’s time strong females in politics was a phenomenon (Liz 2 at Tilsbury, Joan of Arc), and therefore carried concerns about subversion, transgender behaviour or witchcraft, in the modern age we thankfully have a far greater context of female managers, politicians etc to allow for the inclusion of women among the political landscape of the histories to feel like less of an imposition and a more natural recognition of the modern cultural context.

  • Erin

    Oh dear, posted the above on my phone! Should be Bernhardt and ‘an interesting new dimension’…!

  • Erin

    Hi Pete, thanks for a series of great responses to the Henry VI plays – was particularly interested to read about all the cross-gender casting in Part 3. It’s especially interesting because the RSC productions this summer have taken a similar tack – King John has a female Bastard and Pandulph and the Tempest a female Sebastian. I wonder if we’re seeing something of a sea change on casting strategy / philosophy… I’ve seen so many amateur productions with a good dose of traditionally male characters played by women that it almost doesn’t resonate as surprising, but when I stop and think about it I can’t think of *any* professional productions of Shakespeare that I’ve seen that have cast women in ‘men’s’ roles (unless you count the Fool in Lear). I’ve read about Berhardt as Hamlet and Shaw as Richard II, but that seems different to me in that in those cases we’re dealing with star actresses who are playing star roles. I’d like to see more of these subtle shake ups – they add an ingesting new dimension to the plays and they let us see more of the female talent that’s out there.

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