You might look at Margaret of Anjou’s life in Shakespeare’s plays as a chessboard: She begins as a pawn, married off to the King of England to put an end to war. She ends as a queen incapable of influencing the outcome of the royal game, a raging prophet who rightly predicts disaster for Richard III and all who serve him.
Tony Wright has adapted the three parts of “Henry VI” – which I don’t imagine we’ll see here any other way – into a continuous narrative he calls “Queen Margaret.” Anything in those plays that doesn’t bear directly on her character or her attempts to help Henry hang onto the crown has been excised: We get nothing about Joan of Arc, the Cade Rebellion or the future Henry VII.
Instead, the well-assembled narrative presents a character who goes from a confused, slightly flirtatious teenager to an embittered, angry woman in her 30s. We can’t help sympathizing with someone who loses power, husband (however neglected) and son, but she emerges mainly as a frightening villainess: adulterous, cruel, spiteful and Machiavellian. (We don’t follow Margaret into old age, where she returns to curse impotently at the House of York in “Richard III.”)
This is the original “Game of Thrones,” with multiple factions ready to pat or stab one another’s backs as the occasion arises. Shakespeare was on his way to greatness at this point – these are probably his earliest plays, after “The Comedy of Errors” – and plotting trumps character development.
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Wright directs in free-flowing style, interrupting his long and complicated narrative as rarely as possible. He uses a screen with supertitles to provide historical background efficiently.
The stage remains almost bare in this Shakespeare Carolina production, as one imagines it might have in the original Globe, and lights do a lot to focus attention. (Wright also designed the lighting and staged the swordfights.)
The title role falls to company stalwart Katie Bearden, who is hampered by wigs that make her look like Bo Peep in Act 1 and Norman Bates’ mother in Act 2.
She handles the extroverted moments well: the curses, the eruptions of anger, the wailing grief. More introverted moments elude her; she doesn’t seem sexually drawn to the Duke of Suffolk, who weds her to the king so she’ll be on call for himself, and she doesn’t show us much interior life.
Director Wright cast himself as Suffolk and the murderous Clifford, and he handles the florid speeches with verve. (Most actors play multiple parts.) He has been fortunate in the supporting roles, including two done as cross-dressing parts: Amy Arpan makes a fine vicious young Richard, who’ll grow up to be the despised monarch, and Arietta van de Voort has a princely presence as Margaret’s ill-fated son.
Russell Rowe and Chris Freeman speak forthrightly as Humphrey, Richard’s protector, and the side-shifting Warwick, and Nathan Kelly Rouse catches the right note of earnest weakness as Henry VI. (His role, cut down sharply, doesn’t let him do much else.)
The rest of the cast struggles with hesitancy, line flubs or projection problems, though the latter is less of a problem in the intimate setting of Duke Energy Theater. They have a lot to say in this wordy narrative, and we need to get all of it.