Blood. There's a lot of it about in the RSC's Henry VI trilogy, but it's highly effective. Ever since as Julius Caesar (aged 16) in the school play I expired as a knife crime victim on the Capitol steps, having crunched a nice fizzy red blood capsule, I've wondered why gore on stage is sometimes effective and sometimes not. I think when there's too much, it doesn't work and the audience just see the fakery. My wife, normally the first to duck under the seat when there's violence, stood totally unmoved through Titus Andronicus at Shakespeare's Globe. 'I just didn't believe in any of it,' she said. There's a lot of genuine Grand Guignol horror in Shakespeare, with countless stabbings and disembowellings and scary moments such as the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear. But Shakespeare came to realise that the most effective horrific moments come from inside the mind -- Lady Macbeth washing away non-existent blood, or Macbeth seeing Banquo's ghost. In Henry VI there's a lot of both kinds of horror. Director Michael Boyd's use of ghosts is very deft; victims repeatedly rise up after they have been stabbed and haunt their murderers. Bodies expire and at the end of the scene, get up and walk off stage like souls heading for purgatory. In the brilliantly staged battle scenes, fighters have blood smeared on their hands and temples. But the gore is carefully calibrated, and this is one of the ways in which Boyd's production is so satisfying. The only real moments when violence turns into pure unadulterated sadism come from Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III, beautifully played by Jonathan Slinger, who turns the hunchback into a highly convincing psychotic. Everyone else uses violence as a means to an end, while Richard revels in it for its own sake. In the final scenes of part 3, Boyd's relative restraint with the fake blood in the previous 10 hours of drama pays off. With the death of Henry VI, there is suddenly far more blood on stage than ever before. Chuk Iwuji, stabbed by Richard, pukes it up in a great fountain. And for the first time, the dead man doesn't get up. Richard has to awkwardly drag Henry's body into the wings. When King Edward enters with his queen to announce final victory over the Lancastrians and makes a circuit of the stage, his white robe sweeps the floor and picks up a dramatic crimson trimming. At the same time the stage is carpeted in white and red feathers. It's a brilliant moment which doesn't seem OTT. Stage effects and visual metaphors work best when they take the audience by surprise, rather than being repeated ad nauseam. Less can sometimes be more.
I'll probably have more to say about Jonathan Slinger after seeing Richard III on Saturday. Part 3 was another opportunity to see Katy Stephens as Margaret of Anjou, a steely femme fatale from the same stable as Margaret Thatcher. I was reminded of Francois Mitterrand's legendary remark after meeting the blessed Maggie: 'Les yeux de Caligula et la bouche de Marilyn Monroe'. I wondered for an idle moment in part 2 if Jack Cade's rebels would start chanting 'Maggie Maggie Maggie! Out Out Out!' like 15th century poll tax rioters. But sensibly, they didn't. I think, as pompous theatre critics are wont to say, that we shall see more of Katy Stephens, whose CV indicates that she hasn't acted much in London before, apart from Tamburlaine at the Barbican. She's a sizzling actress in the Diana Rigg mould and I would like to see her playing Lady Macbeth or in a few years time, Cleopatra. She has great timing and delivery and, I suspect, a gift for comedy as well. Part 3 also delivered a majestic performance from Patrice Naiambana as Warwick. As the Histories cycle progresses, I'm getting a sense of how tightly-knit an ensemble this is and how they manage to be totally at home with each other, with their costumes and their weapons, and with the set and stage. After some two years of rehearsals and performances, perhaps they should be. But it's still a wonderful achievement and one of the theatrical events of the decade.