King Henry VI has his hands full, and Seattle Shakespeare Company (SSC) has a hit on their hands.
SSC is making its own history with “Bring Down the House,” featuring an all-female cast in William Shakespeare’s trilogy, “Henry VI.” In cooperation with upstart crow collective, the Bard’s history has been adapted into a two-part production by Rosa Joshi and Kate Wisniewski. Rosa Joshi directs. Part 1 is titled “Throne of Treachery,” and Part 2, “Crusade of Chaos.”
In Shakespeare’s day, men played the women’s roles. But there’s a new gender-bender concept that has women playing all of the men’s roles. The upstart crow collective has a mission. Produce classical works with all-female casts for contemporary audiences.
The New York Times and the New Yorker have written about this innovation, citing British director Phyllida Lloyd. She helmed the Donmar Warehouse production of “The Tempest,” which played in London before transferring to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York.
But Donmar wasn’t the first company to mount an all-female cast. In 1992, Ruth Mitchell played “Hamlet” in an all-female production at the Warehouse Theatre in the London Borough of Croydon
Women have played men’s roles before. Sarah Bernhardt played Hamlet in 1899. Glenda Jackson is currently playing King Lear, at the Old Vic in London to rave reviews, and in 2015, the British-African actress Zainab Jah played Hamlet at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, the second Black woman to play the Danish prince. The first was Melody Garrett in a 1992 student production at Yale Repertory Theater.
But back to Henry VI: The 15th century in England was no cup of tea, especially during the War of the Roses which lasted 30-plus years. Two branches of the Plantagenet family tree, the House of Lancaster, symbolized by a red rose, and the House of York, symbolized by a white rose, fought for the English crown and the right to rule.
And so it begins. Betrayals, blood-thirsty battles, beheadings, deceit, assassinations, revenge, treachery, patricide, filicide, treason, and savagery, nothing is off the table. Think “Game of Thrones,” only more ruthless. GOT is mythical; the War of the Roses is not.
Unlike his popular father King Henry V, King Henry VI was more pious, less combative (and perhaps mentally unstable), but his wife, Queen Margaret, was a villainous she-wolf. Some historians even refer to her as a beast. The Earl of Warwick, described as a “kingmaker,” support’s Henry VI’s reign. Until he doesn’t.
Henry VI’s nobles are turning against him, And hunched over in the wings is future King Richard III, House of York, a royal lunatic and psychopath without honor or remorse. Nothing is beneath him; he will do anything to ascend the throne.
Scholars still debate whether William Shakespeare or Christopher Marlowe authored this history. Some think they put their heads together and shared feather quills to come up with this play.
SSC’s cast totals 17 women. With the exception of the roles of King Henry VI, Queen Margaret and the Earl of Warwick, all of the actors play multiple parts,
If you can only see one part, choose Part 2. Word is there are better fights, juicier moments and more action, including sword fights with drums in tandem and slow-motion, almost dance-like, confrontations. Sounds like they really do bring down the house…
“Bring Down the House,” Parts 1 and 2 runs through March 12 at the Center House Theatre, tickets available at SSC’s box office or online at www.seattleshakespeare.org.