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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
HENRY VIII
at Shakespeare’s Globe

RETURN OF THE KING
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Miranda Raison/ Ph: John Tramper

The first (and last) time King Henry VIII by Shakespeare and John Fletcher was played at a theatre called the Globe, in June 1613, the cannon, or “chamber,” was fired to announce the arrival of the king at Cardinal Wolsey’s palace; the thatched roof was set alight; and the theatre burned to the ground within an hour.

There were no casualties. According to a letter written by Sir Henry Wotton, a former ambassador to Venice, to his nephew, “Only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with bottle ale.”

So we clutch our refreshments with renewed anxiety as a huge bang goes off in the new Globe by the river, but Wolsey calms us with his promise to mend the “broken banquet” as he welcomes the masked revelers. They include the king himself, who soon spots the beautiful Anne Bullen (or Boleyn), his wife’s maid of honour, and sets in train his bitter divorce.

The significance of the play in Shakespeare’s time, of course, was that the “heretic” Anne gives birth, at the end, to the future Elizabeth I, and the problem of overriding the Catholic Church in the Reformation is resolved in the fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the death of Katherine of Aragon and the ascent of Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury – whom Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized as a future Protestant martyr.

The play was also known as “All Is True,” which conveys a real whiff of what might have been said in the corridors of power, although Henry is portrayed as a monarch who is learning on the job rather than laying down the law. The actor Dominic Rowan conveys this admirably in Mark Rosenblatt’s production, which is far more sinewy and engaging than just the usual series of spectacular pageants – although these are admirably done, too.

Popular interest in this period, and the characters, has been rekindled by the television series about the Tudors and the runaway international success of Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning novel "Wolf Hall," which cunningly narrates the rise of Thomas Cromwell, one of the king’s most powerful courtiers. In the play, Cromwell is a faceless servant to Wolsey, whose fall – “like a great exhalation in the evening” – is the drama’s second great dramatic demise.

The first is that of Katherine, whom Kate Duchêne – whose credits include good work with the RSC and director Katie Mitchell – plays with a full-blown Spanish accent, if not the moving tragic grandeur (she suddenly starts shrieking, unaccountably) Peggy Ashcroft once evinced. And Ashcroft’s Wolsey in that early RSC Trevor Nunn version was Donald Sinden, an actor to whom self-regarding splendiferousness came naturally.

Rosenblatt’s Wolsey, as played by another RSC veteran, Ian McNeice, is thoroughly believable as the “corrupt and treasonous” butcher’s cur from Ipswich, with his vast stomach and wobbly triple chin, but his “long farewell” to all his greatness – as he anoints Cromwell his political successor – is punched out with monotonously identical emphases and too many short, sharp breaths.

The play has long been viewed as something much more than a royalist spectacular, not least at the RSC, where Howard Davies’ Brechtian production on a scaffolded set, and Adrian Noble’s eloquent reappraisal in Holy Trinity at Stratford-upon-Avon, have picked up on the innate contradictions and subtleties.

Rosenblatt picks up on them, too, unleashing the brilliant Amanda Lawrence as a caustic witness, cynical lady-in-waiting and white-faced jester to the king, trailing him with a puppet likeness of his deceased son. And comments of the Gentlemen and Citizens maintain a fine skeptical counterpoint to the power games and judicious jostling.

Miranda Raison, popular from her television appearances in BBC TV’s Spooks series, makes of Anne Boleyn a graceful, still centre of the play. She will have a chance to elaborate further when she appears, later in the Globe season, in the title role of a new companion piece, Anne Boleyn, by original Spooks author Howard Brenton. Meanwhile, the Globe has another, more surprising, crowd-pleaser.

 

 


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