The Utah Shakespearean Festival’s “War of the Roses,” an adaptation of “Henry VI Parts 1, 2 and 3,” is an ambitious, noble effort at putting these three rarely produced plays on the stage.
Written by Howard Jensen, who also directed, the adaptation condenses at least nine hours’ worth of material down to a festival-length three hours, basically cramming Parts 1 and 2 into the first act, with Part 3 filling the second.
The final product is one that only the most serious of Shakespeare aficionados will enjoy. The problem is that the task of abridging three already-difficult plays into one is simply too large, perhaps even impossible.
Jensen has stayed as true as he could to the original plots and characters, letting almost everyone have at least a few minutes onstage rather than cutting them altogether (though a few do receive that fate). The result, especially in the first act, is that just as we’re getting interested in some sequence of events, it ends, to make room for the next one.
Lord Talbot (Alex Moggridge), for example, is a courageous warrior in the battles between England and France that weave throughout the trilogy, and the only real hero in Part 1. He dies in that play, after having done much for England and having defeated the evil witch called Joan of Arc (Kathleen McCall).
In “The War of the Roses,” Talbot is dead in 30 minutes; Joan, 15 minutes after that. Things happen so quickly that there is no time to experience the emotions that Shakespeare intended. Which begs the question, why include them at all? If characters will be set up and then quickly dispatched, leaving no impact behind them, before the first act is even half-over, why not just cut them out altogether and focus on some more central idea?
The answer, I suspect, is that Jensen wanted to be faithful to the original. The festival could have just staged “Henry VI Part 3,” which is the meatiest of the trilogy and receives the most attention here. But then the festival couldn’t say it had performed EVERY ONE of the Bard’s works. With an adaptation that combines all three, no matter how hurriedly or ineffectually, they can say they’ve done them all, at least technically.
Unless you know the trilogy well, you’re unlikely to even know when this thing is going to end. By the 2 1/2-hour mark, so many people have come and gone, so many plots started and finished, that it will seem like the play could stop at any point and be as complete as it’s going to be.
To be fair, though, the actual ending is a deliciously ominous one, with the evil Richard (Michael A. Harding) — later the foul villain in “Richard III” — making clear his intentions not to let England’s newly won peace last very long, as he, too, seeks after the crown. Richard has emerged as such a great character that the main achievement of the play is in making you want to watch “Richard III” to see more of him.
I should point out that I was never bored with the play — but, then, I had just read the “Henry VI” trilogy a month earlier and was curious to see it staged. Many audience members trickled out before it was over, and some didn’t even make it back from intermission.
The test of who’s good and who’s not in this play is whether you remember them when it’s over. The tragic fate of good-hearted Gloucester (Anthony De Fonte), way back in the first act, is a memorable one, as is the fierce ambition of Queen Margaret (Corliss Preston). Her husband, the title character, making a cameo appearance in his own play, is played with appropriate weak-willed womanliness by Raymond L. Chapman.
Henry is a good man but a terrible leader, leading to the factions and crown-seekers who fill the play. His intentions are good; he just can’t carry them out.
The same can be said of Howard Jensen, whose desire to turn the “Henry VI” trilogy into something accessible is admirable, but ultimately a task too complicated to be achieved.
I read the three "Henry VI" plays when I was visiting New York a couple months prior to the festival. Whenever I was on the subway or standing in line for something -- those are the two main activities in Manhattan -- I'd be reading "Henry VI." Thus, I now associate the plays with New York City, though they have little to do with each other, really.