One city, two great writers
In Belfast last weekend, the Lyric Theatre remembered Seamus Heaney while the Grand Opera House staged the Globe Theatre version of Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy: Harry the Sixth, The Houses of York and Lancaster, and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York
Constantly changing: the Globe’s Henry VI trilogy
It was a strange kind of a day. A day of sorrow, of reflection, of anticipation. On the morning after the death of Seamus Heaney one of Belfast’s theatres was planning an impromptu memorial while another was opening its doors early, in advance of a 10-hour immersion in the work of another great writer.
The switchboard of the Lyric Theatre was jammed after an open invitation was issued to an evening of remembrance for an inspirational life lost. For everyone connected with the Lyric it has been impossible to escape the inner sound of that wise, gentle voice sounding over the unveiling of its threshold stone. On a September morning four years ago Heaney read a verse from Peter Street at Bankside, a poem he composed in 1965 for the foundation of the original building. Its final line resonates strongly at this time: “Here all the world’s an act, a word, an echo.”
There was serious business in hand at the Grand Opera House, too. Few companies can do Shakespeare quite as effectively as the Globe, whose circular, thatched-roofed stage beside the Thames in London was the playwright’s own stamping ground. Its ambitious production of the three parts of Henry VI – here called Harry the Sixth, The Houses of York and Lancaster and The True Tragedy of the Duke of York – has been out and about around England, playing on the battlefields where some of the bloodiest conflicts in the country’s history took place.
Although it was written more than 400 years ago, the trilogy offers a powerful portrayal of 21st-century political conflicts, popular uprisings and state-organised massacres.
Mixed with grief for Heaney was a sense of shared resolve among the Saturday-lunchtime audience, many of whom had signed up to watch all three plays presented in chronological order in a single day, with only a brief breathing space in between.
It is a bad idea to rely on Shakespeare’s history plays for factual accuracy. They compress time, skim over boring bits, concentrate on the sensational and are entirely cavalier when it comes to dates. But, boy, do they make great stories.
This rarely performed trilogy is a case in point. As plays they are decidedly average. They were, after all, the earliest works of a young writer and were probably created in collaboration. Intended to stand independently, they were written out of sequence, with part one the last of the three.
But they capture a pivotal period in Anglo-French relations, and Nick Bagnall’s muscular reworking is being justifiably compared with Peter Hall and John Barton’s iconic adaptation of The Wars of the Roses – that is to say the three parts of Henry VI plus The Tragedy of King Richard III – for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1963.