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Henry VI in performance : history, culture and Shakespeare reproduced

By Stuart Hampton-Reeves


The long-neglected Henry VI plays have been 'rediscovered' by a number of post-war\ud productions which have found new ways of bringing Shakespeare's civil war plays to modern\ud audiences. The Wars of the Roses, directed by Peter Hall and adapted by Hall and John Barton,\ud established the theatrical vitality of the plays and defined them for a generation as 'national'\ud dramas. I argue that many of the most important and mythologised aspects of that production\ud were contingent upon the difficult situation of the RSC in the early 1960s and that, in fact, the\ud 'tradition' of playing the Henry VI plays as national dramas is an invented one, based upon the\ud Tillyardian interpretation of them as 'matter of England' plays. Nevertheless, The Wars of the\ud Roses has cast a massive shadow over subsequent productions of the Henry VI plays. Most\ud notably, two productions in the late 1980s - the RSC's The Plantagenets and the ESC's The Wars\ud of the Roses - were virtual revivals of the 1963 productions whilst even those that, at the time,\ud seemed to be reacting against Hall and Barton - the RSC's trilogy of 1977 and the BBC's\ud tetralogy of 1981/3 - in fact bore their influence in that they staged the plays as 'matter of\ud England' productions. 'England' took on a different meaning however after the election of the\ud Conservative Government in 1979. Mrs. Thatcher introduced market ideologies into the funding\ud of theatres and this forced rapid, radical and often unwelcome changes to the culture of the large\ud theatres: England became a divided and contested site and rubbed against the resolution that Hall\ud and Barton had sought in 1963. In the third chapter, I will examine in detail three 1980s\ud productions which were shaped by this situation, but also responded to, engaged with, and\ud attempted to subvert the Thatcherite appropriation of national identity. Finally, I argue that all of\ud these performances exhibit a deep anxiety about social changes and about the role of\ud Shakespearean theatre within these changes

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