6.30pm Sunday 16 March 2008. The same theatre. Jonathan Slinger as a deeply psychotic Crookback lies dead on Bosworth Field. Lex Shrapnel as the coolly victorious, almost Blairite, newly crowned Henry VII delivers the final couplet of Shakespeare’s second history tetralogy: “Now civil wounds are stopped, peace lives again: That she may long live here, God say ‘Amen’!”

The stage lights dim to black and the packed house of a thousand rises as one to roar its wild enthusiasms. Most of us have been there for the whole three-day marathon. Many of us booked our £500 tickets more than a year in advance. Together, over three days, we have experienced what will be remembered as the greatest theatrical experience of our lives.

The lights come up on both stage and audience. The actors are brought back time and again, showered with flowers—daffodils and roses, both red and white of course. The whole technical staff, who have made such an extraordinary contribution to the performances, take a richly deserved call. Richard Cordery, who as the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Buckingham provided so much of the political focus of the plays, introduces the man who more than anyone else is responsible for this amazing experience—Michael Boyd, the Artistic Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Over two years he and his hugely talented 34 strong ensemble of actors worked with a creative team of directors, designers, musicians and theatre practitioners from every discipline to stage Shakespeare’s epic history cycle of eight plays. Between them they played 264 different roles and wore no less than 72 rails of costumes. The plays cover almost a century of the most turbulent years of English history, from the deposition of Richard II in 1399 to the Battle of Bosworth and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty in 1485.

Eight centuries of history

Over those amazing three days we followed the histories of two Richards, two Edwards and three Henrys. We saw kings forced to abdicate. We saw them arrested, imprisoned, restored, usurped and murdered. We saw Joan of Arc raise the siege of Orleans and Henry of Monmouth besiege Harfleur. We saw the plucking of the roses in the Temple Gardens by the Yorkists and the Lancastrians. We followed their armies across the length and breadth of England—and of France. We were witnesses to the battles of Shrewsbury, (and the death of Harry Percy), Agincourt and Tewkesbury, St Albans, Barnet, Wakefield and Towton.

Variety of quality and style

Of course the plays vary widely in both quality and style. The second tetralogy, in historical order—the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III—was the first to be written, probably between 1591 and 1594. They are among the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays, yet in Richard Crookback they contain one of the greatest stage villains of all time. The second tetralogy—Richard II, the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V—written between 1595 and 1599 is Shakespeare at the height of his powers. Within the next six years he will have written Hamlet, Othello and Lear, as well as Much Ado About Nothing, Twelfth Night and As You Like It.

Compared to the almost unbroken verse of the first tetralogy—the first great use of the iambic pentameter in the English language—the two parts of Henry IV and Henry V are almost equally written in prose and poetry and demonstrate Shakespeare’s equal mastery of both. More than 50 years ago the great Kenneth Tynan described the productions of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 with Richardson and Olivier as “the twin pinnacles of the matchless Old Vic seasons at the close of the war”. He continued: “the same plays with Richard Burton and Michael Redgrave set Stratford agog in the early 1950s, and they returned to pack the Old Vic in 1955”, when he described them as “the twin summits of Shakespeare’s achievement,…great public plays in which a whole nation is under scrutiny and on trial. More than anything else in our drama they deserve the name of epic”. What we have learned over the past 50 years, and especially since Peter Hall’s The Wars of the Roses in 1964, is that the Henry VI trilogy is equally worth reviving, and that the tetralogies are at their best when seen together. One of the great joys of the Stratford marathon was to see Hall’s Henry VI—David Warner—transformed by age and experience from a spindly inadequate adolescent king into a hugely magnificent ancient Falstaff.

Huge and starring cast

From amongst the huge cast it is almost invidious to pick out any individuals. Of the adults only Warner has a single role. Many of the others play nine or 10 different parts in addition to understudying a number of others. But it would be seriously ungenerous not to mention—strictly in alphabetical order—and in addition to Cordery, Slinger and Warner—Chuk Iwugi as Henry VI, Lex Shrapnel as Hotspur, Katie Stephens as Joan, La Purcelle and Margaret of Anjou, Geoffrey Streatfield as Hal and Henry V, and Clive Wood as Bolingbroke, Henry IV and Richard Plantagenet.

Inspired set design

It would be equally ungenerous not to mention Tom Piper’s inspired design, using every square inch of the extraordinary space that is the Courtyard Theatre. But above all, the Glorious Moment is Michael Boyd’s very personal triumph. No-one will be able to forget his three dimensional use of the theatre, with soldiers exploding out of the stage traps, others swinging on ropes from the rooftops, the French court descending on trapezes like circus artists. It was breathtaking. It was exciting. It was exhilarating. To him must go the last words, writing of the Henry VI trilogy: “These plays offer, first and foremost a thundering good story on a scale rarely seen in the theatre: an irresistible narrative which marries the scope of War and Peace, The Sopranos and the Bible. An internecine family soap that embraces heaven and hell and the morality of temporal power. They throw an unforgiving beam of light on our understanding of Englishness. Through the refracting glass of the 15th century they return our gaze to Shakespeare’s own time, still living the trauma of the Reformation and the suppression of English Catholicism. Because they are relatively rarely performed they speak to most of the audience with the immediacy and freshness of new plays. They reveal Shakespeare as not only the first great modern, but as the last great medievalist. They are plays written by a young man with an open hearted spirituality and an anger about the abuse of power that wouldn’t find such courageous articulation again until the late tragedies.”

Unforgettable event

The full eight-play cycle—which has been described by The Guardian as “one of the great events of modern theatre” and by The Financial Times as “the most imaginative Shakespeare staging of this millennium”—has probably never been staged in this way before, though Michael Bogdanov and the English Shakespeare Company did do a seven-play version in 1989. It played its final eight-week season at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm in April and May, culminating in two last full cycles. It will probably never be done again in this way in my lifetime. But at least I will always be able to say that in March 2008 I was at the Stratford Courtyard for the ultimate “Glorious Moment”. It is something I will never forget!

Martin Bowley QC