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Why, in Shakespeare’s day, did audiences pay twice the price of a ticket to attend on opening night? The answer presumably was because it was more exciting. But why? Well, why not discover for yourselves?
In Shakespeare’s theatre the actors would have been able to see their audience (most famously at the Globe), so during these two “original practices” performances of Henry VI Part 1, lights will never go down on you, the audience. This fundamentally changes your relationship with the play, and the players, because our actors will not only be able to see you, but will talk directly to you and engage you in the action. Therefore, you will find yourself cast in the various roles that Shakespeare wrote for you, the audience: confidante, friend, enemy, traitor, soldier—maybe even the butt of a joke.
When we rehearsed this production, we received our roles (rolled-up cue scripts), prepared them in solitude and then came together as a company for just a few hours to organize fight choreography and large group scenes. Our cue scripts contained only our own lines, with a few words by an unidentified speaker as the “cue.” this means that today we may be as surprised at what comes next as you are. And so, as in Shakespeare’s time, we are supported by an onstage prompter to give us all a helping hand (or line) if we find ourselves speechless before you.
Consider us as expert athletes playing a sport. We know the rules of theatrical performance, but don’t know how the game will turn out, so for us, as well as you, it is our first time. It will be a unique experience—for all of us. Now as actors in this CSF season, we have never played together before in this way, and while it has taken a great deal of courage to put aside the contemporary norms of ensemble rehearsal, we are confident that with you as our brave audience, we may all experience some magic like that at the first night of a play at the Globe. Shakespeare’s audiences were not reserved or polite, so we ask you to put aside the contemporary norms of an audience and become lively, vocal playgoers. you are an essential player; this isn’t a museum, it’s a play! So let’s play.
Lastly, you’ll notice, as in Shakespeare’s day, it’s “all hands on deck,” so i’ll be playing too—just like he did. Enjoy. He would want that.
—Vanessa morosco, director
Upon the death of Henry V, his infant son is crowned Henry VI of England and news immediately arrives that the Dauphin has been crowned King of France; Henry’s young age means men like Gloucester and Talbot are the true leaders of England. The Dauphin, Charles VII, meets with a young country girl who claims to be able to defeat the English scourge and with Joan of Arc’s help, the French retake Orleans. Talbot quickly dislodges the French, and they repeatedly attempt to capture him. Back in England, the Earl of Somerset (of Lancaster) and Richard Plantagenet (of York) quarrel, eventually forcing the court to choose sides signified by red and white roses respectively. Richard visits Mortimer in prison, discovering his claim to the throne.
The now-grown King Henry VI tries to mend the breach between York and Lancaster; meanwhile Gloucester and the Bishop of Winchester’s men have also started fighting in the streets. The French and English clash before Rouen. Despite the fighting in England and France, Henry travels to Paris to be formally crowned as King of France. Immediately it is revealed that the Duke of Burgundy, who had been working with England, has reverted his allegiance back to France. The English and French clash now at Bordeaux; York and Somerset quibble over whose fault it is they are delayed. John Talbot and his son fight bravely, but both are killed in battle. Joan has turned desperate, and attempts to conjure spirits to her aid, but is captured and burned at the stake. The Earl of Suffolk captures Reignier’s daughter, Margaret, and immediately falls in love. He promises her to Henry, ruining an earlier contract and upsetting many. Henry concludes that he has fallen in love with Margaret and will have her, gaining little and losing more in the match.
—Hadley Kamminga-Peck, dramaturg
Henry VI Part 1 begins Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses tetralogy, a cycle of four plays relating the civil war between the houses of york and lancaster. the yorks and the lancasters are all part of the same family, descendants of Edward III. In Henry VI Part 1, we see the birth of this civil war in Shakespeare’s famous garden scene, in which York and Somerset select white and red roses, thus dividing the two houses of York and Lancaster. This four-play cycle culminates with Shakespeare’s Richard III (last performed at CSF in 2012), when Henry VII (grandfather to Elizabeth I) is crowned king, thus ending the Wars of the Roses.
After writing this play cycle, Shakespeare went further back in the chronology and wrote the tetralogy known as the Henriad, depicting the origins of the York and Lancaster conflict. This tetralogy (which CSF completes this summer) culminates with the victories of Henry V.
In Henry VI Part 1, we now see Henry V’s infant son on the throne, and the onset of a power vacuum. Richard, Duke of York (who picked the white rose), held a claim to the throne through his mother and his father, making him a stronger inheritor than the Lancasters. However, Richard’s father had been beheaded by Henry V as a traitor, making Henry VI reluctant to re-ennoble Richard of York.
Scholars believe that Shakespeare actually wrote Henry VI Part 1 after writing parts 2 and 3, which are believed to have originally been produced as two parts of a whole titled, The Contention Betwixt the Two Famous Houses of Yorke and Lancaster. Henry VI Part 1 therefore serves as a prequel to the two ensuing plays, not unlike Star Wars: Episode 1 or Peter Jackson’s film trilogy based on The Hobbit. This play sets the stage for what comes next.
The state of affairs at the start of Henry VI Part 1 is as follows: England is ruled by an infant king, who will grow up to be overly pious. His biggest demonstration of power is his highly unpopular decision to marry Margaret, which releases control of hard-won French lands without benefit to the English crown. England is also in the midst of the Hundred Years’ War, demoralized and impoverished. What ensues is a war for power, with Edward III’s descendants all vying for their chance to rule England.
—Hadley Kamminga-Peck, dramaturg
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