An Age Of Kings – Episode Nine – The Red Rose and the White (Henry VI Part One)

eileen atkins
Eileen Atkins

Henry VI Part One is generally considered to be the weakest of Shakespeare’s history cycle.  This might explain why, uniquely, it was the only play adapted for An Age of Kings to be condensed down to a single episode. This obviously meant that major cuts had to be made – the exploits of Talbot in France are completely removed as are all the battle scenes.  What remains are the verbal skirmishes between the nobles in England as they symbolically choose either white or red roses to mark their allegiance.

With the battles in France excised, what’s left are the scenes between the Dauphin (Jerome Willis) and Joan of Arc (Eileen Atkins).  These could have been cut too, which would have allowed all the events of the play to be centered in England, but I’m glad they were kept in.  Atkins gives a striking performance – her Joan is confident and self-assured and she easily captivates the Dauphin.

Dauphin, I am by birth a shepherd’s daughter,
My wit untrain’d in any kind of art.
Heaven and our Lady gracious hath it pleased
To shine on my contemptible estate:
Lo, whilst I waited on my tender lambs,
And to sun’s parching heat display’d my cheeks,
God’s mother deigned to appear to me
And in a vision full of majesty
Will’d me to leave my base vocation
And free my country from calamity:
Her aid she promised and assured success:
In complete glory she reveal’d herself;
And, whereas I was black and swart before,
With those clear rays which she infused on me
That beauty am I bless’d with which you see.
Ask me what question thou canst possible,
And I will answer unpremeditated:
My courage try by combat, if thou darest,
And thou shalt find that I exceed my sex.
Resolve on this, thou shalt be fortunate,
If thou receive me for thy warlike mate.

One of the drawbacks of such intensive cuts is that it severly reduces her role.  But the little we have of Joan is very impressive, all the more so since up until now there have been few decent roles for women in the history cycle.  Director Michael Hayes also creates some impressive shots – for example, when Joan’s nearly defeated and attempting to summon up demonic spirits to aid her, he zooms into her eyes and superimposes dancing figures onto her irises.  Such a trick would be commonplace now, but to achieve such an effect then and particlarly during a live broadcast is quite noteworthy.  Joan’s death is also another stand-out moment.  The flames are quite effective, as are her ear-splitting screams as the picture fades to black.

Back in England, the nobles are taking sides.  Given the cuts to the play and the number of characters we see, this isn’t particularity easy to follow and is probably one of the major drawbacks of condensing the play.  What is clear is that the Duke of Gloucester (John Ringham) is the protector of the young King, Henry VI (Terry Scully), and Winchester (Robert Lang) opposes Gloucester.

Both Ringham and Lang (familiar faces from previous episodes) give good performances and Scully manages (via his high-pitched tones) to indicate Henry’s youth and inexperience.  Another notable appearance is that of Mary Morris as Margaret, daughter of the Duke of Anjou.  Margaret would prove to be a major figure in the upcoming plays and Morris impresses here as she would do later on.  She was always an unusual actresses, with a style all of her own, and there’s more than a hint of that here.

Effectively, The Red Rose and the White stands as a prologue for the battles of the Wars of the Roses which will run for the remaining six episodes of the series.  It may not be the most distinguished part of An Age Of Kings, but thanks to some fine performances (particularly Eileen Atkins) it’s not without interest.

Next up – Episode Ten – The Fall of the Protector