Shakespeare's octet of plays chronicling the Wars of the Roses present a magnificent panorama of human and historical drama. Any company staging them, though, runs into the nettlesome problem of the Henry VI trilogy. The three plays are actually something of a mess. Their verse is often full of power and energy, but their schematics are in disarray, their plots all over the place, and much of their exposition long-winded and confusing. Dramaturge Tom Loback's putting the focus on the character of Margaret of Anjou is as valid a method as any for distilling the text. She appears in all three Henry VI plays, as well as in Richard III (the longest female part Shakespeare ever wrote), and making her the epicenter of the action makes for greater playability and a more precisely structured development. The arch of Margaret's political and personal trajectory affords a pointed examination of impulses both noble and base as they commingle.
Regrettably, Loback's genuinely fine editing job was undone by the mediocrity of the production presenting it. First and foremost, the script lives or dies on the shoulders of the actress in the title role. Madigan Ryan (though she has garnered praise from John Barton, the Advisory Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and a consultant on the reduction) never generated enough charisma, depth of interpretation, or vocal power to make her Margaret an effective fulcrum by which the production could turn.
The supporting cast wasn't generally much better. Rufus Collins as the pathetic, ineffectual monarch Henry was truly complex in his reading, and Dylan Green's Humphrey had the requisite authority. And Robert Alexander made a zesty Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III). Otherwise, the cast of a dozen or so all had the feel of a well-done college production: good diction and no dropped lines, but little else.
Loback's original set concept was an intriguing mix of sliding screens, heraldic shields, and back-projections of historic locales. Less penurious a budget in a future staging could really do something memorable with the design. Colin Young's lighting was generally competent with flashes of an eye for stark, scary composition. Mimi O'Donnell's costumes were colorful and had a fine sense of period. But they, like most of Tony Torn's direction, cried out for more audacious inspiration.
Loback's Margaret of Anjou is a surprisingly successful adaptation of Shakespeare's text. Would that it were picked up by a company with matching imagination and fire.
Copyright 1996 John Michael Koroly
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