The Royal Shakespeare Company's millennium project is to stage Shakespeare's eight-play history cycle. The first four plays have already proved hugely successful, both at the box office and with critics. Now director Michael Boyd prepares to present the three parts of Henry VI, followed by Richard III next March.
The Henry plays are subtitled The War against France, England's Fall and The Chaos, dealing successively with Joan of Arc, Jack Cade's rebellion, and the outcome of the Wars of the Roses. Unlike the Hall-Barton Sixties staging, there is no rewriting of Shakespeare and few cuts.
In Boyd's productions, costumes will be medieval, but not slavishly so. There will be little scenery, because the Swan has been turned into a theatre in the round. The audience will watch English history bloodily unfold within a fully enclosing wooden O.
Boyd remarks that previous RSC stagings have been "pageantry blockbusters, perhaps because of a suspicion that these are not not very good plays. That's not a view I share." Unlike some critics, he thinks highly of the plays' language, noting their debt to mystery and morality plays. That, and the high degree of formality in some episodes, will influence playing style.
Are the plays relevant to today's England? Boyd remarks that there are occasional felicitous echoes: "Some characters are Europeanists, others isolationist." But he argues that the most obvious contemporary reverberations are with events in Serbia and Palestine: "Like them, Henry's England is very unsettled country, at war with itself."
Nonetheless, Boyd views the cycle as intensely medieval and Renaissance, showing England emerging from the middle ages into the modern world. "For Shakespeare, that's not a benign process. This is a society in crisis, morally sclerotic, in which previously shared codes of behaviour are decaying. There is nothing to replace them, and the opportunists are moving in."
That's a bleak picture, but there will clearly be a good deal of comedy in Boyd's staging. He sees great subversive power in the comedy that comes from the "baddies": Joan, Cade and Richard. He argues that Shakespeare gives these "rebels" a sense of irony about themselves: "They are fully aware of the absurdity of what they do and what they say."
For Boyd, Joan is the most charismatic character in part 1, and Cade ("a bit of a Pol Pot") a memorable comedian in part 2. Richard will be played by Aidan McArdle, who was a brilliant Puck in Boyd's much-admired RSC Dream. Boyd sees McArdle as an actor who can be charming and hideous at the same time - "very destructive, but very funny".
Look out for the "through casting" in the cycle. Fiona Bell will play both Joan and Margaret, and the French court from Part 1 turn up in the two later plays as the sorcerers, Cade rebels and the three York brothers. Such inviting parallels must surely provide plenty of inviting opportunities for student discussion.
The Henry VI plays preview at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, from November 23, and open on December 13. Richard III opens in March. Tickets: 01789 403403