A young and inexperienced king, warring lords, a young princess hiding schemes behind her beauty, an aggressive man of diminutive stature, opposing families with claims to the throne, rape, gratuitous violence and trouble in the North. Sound familiar? The Union’s latest offering is not a dramatisation of Game of Thrones but HVI: Play of Thrones – a take on Shakespeare’s Henry VIsplattered with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire by Phil Willmott. The action takes place in England’s Westminster not the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and they’re fighting for Henry V’s diadem not the Iron Throne.
After borrowing Henry V‘s “Once more unto the breach…” speech, Willmott’s production rushes into Henry VI Part III, borrowing explanatory snippets from Parts I and II where necessary. The plays’ subject matter, the War of the Roses, was apparently one of Martin’s inspirations for his epic series and it’s not hard to see the similarities between Henry VI and Game of Thrones, though the production hammers them home a little too heavy handedly at times with the booming HBO-style soundtrack, shabby fur and leather costumes, bare chests and beards. There are hints of Joffrey (on a particularly placid day) in Paul Adeyefa’s young monarch, while Abigail Carter-Simpson’s Joan La Pucelle is half Ygritte half Daenerys Targaryen. Michael Keane’s chillingly sinister Richard Plantagenet is a Lannister through and through. Every man is blinded by the quest for power and is willing to plot, rape, kill and torture his way to the top. The winter of our discontent is coming, if you will.
At worst it’s a publicity stunt to sell tickets to a particularly low budget fringe production of some of Shakespeare’s least popular plays. At best, though, it’s a fresh take that makes the plays accessible to a new audience. HVI: Play of Thrones falls somewhere between. Willmott is undoubtedly ambitious but the execution of his gory brainchild is a little hit and miss.
What HVI: Game of Thrones gives with one hand it takes away with the other. The second half is fast-paced and packed with unbearably gruesome moments but the first half feels tedious in places. Jason Meininger’s dramatic lighting is effective but the actors have to fight their greatest battles not with each other but with the noise of James Nicholson’s overbearing sound and the crude set’s rattling ladders. Adeyefa as Henry VI, Keane as the future Richard III and Gavin Kerr as the Duke of Suffolk give outstanding performances but they’re let down by a patchy supporting cast.
HVI: Play of Thrones runs for just under three hours which is not long enough to cram in all three Henries and five of Martin’s novels but yet feels too long to really be enjoyable. It has a brave bark but never quite bites: here be not dragons.