Just recently, for my 300th consecutive day of reviewing, I realised I had yet to visit the Globe online only to find that my choice (the Henry VI trilogy) wasn’t broadcast from the theatre itself and so that particular mini ambition still had to realised. As yesterday was to be another centennial milestone (my 400th lockdown production reviewed) it seemed appropriate to have another go. This time I opted for Shakespeare’s last history play Henry VIII and this time it certainly was from the famous South Bank venue. As one of the main things known about the play was that it was this which caused the Globe to burn down when wadding from a stage cannon caught the thatched roof alight it seemed an appropriate choice.
As far as the ten history plays are concerned this one is a bit of an oddity; for a start it must be the only one that doesn’t contain a battle scene. However, that doesn’t mean that conflict doesn’t loom large; in fact, the whole thing is one long power struggle from beginning to end as Henry wrestles with his conscience in his bid to sire a male heir and disposes of Katherine of Aragon along the way in favour of Anne Bullen – not that she was to last long either but the narrative doesn’t quite take us that far. Beyond this personal unrest, church and state battle it out and various dukes, lords and cardinals manoeuvre for political position. Director Mark Rosenblatt seems to have taken his cue from the American TV series The West Wing for this, as characters literally walk the corridors of power discussing what chicanery to get up to next.
Try as one might it is not a play to love. Far too much of the big action takes place offstage and it is left to witnesses to keep appearing and revealing what they have just seen – show not tell appears to have eluded Shakespeare in this play although as it is now regarded as a collaboration with John Fletcher maybe the latter is to blame. What we do see however is shot through with pomp and circumstance and the Globe have pulled out all the stops with the various processions, etc. to make them visually memorable. They certainly take full advantage of the theatre space and the groundlings help to fuel the idea that these events are taking place in front of a thronging crowd. However, probably the best scene in the play is the one that fuses the pageantry of Catherine’s trial with the personal dimension of her particular situation.
Henry himself is far from being the oft portrayed, one dimensional chicken leg guzzling, wife abusing ogre of historical legend. Of all the monarchs down the ages he is probably the most instantly recognisable and when Dominic Rowan finally adopts the Holbein stance from the famous portrait his move from young monarch to budding tyrant seems complete. Before that he is clearly a man trying to make sense of his position, a position he never expected to have until his older brother died, and he follows a similar path to Prince Hal/Henry V in becoming increasingly aware of what it is to be a king. Rowan’s performance becomes progressively more assured as the play develops but, unfortunately it ends before things start to get really interesting.
Of the two Queens, Kate Duchene as Katherine has significantly more to do and for most of the scenes she is in she lights up proceedings even as her world falls apart. However, I do feel that she takes things too far in her final appearance where something a bit more restrained would have actually said more. The real star of the show is Ian McNeice as Cardinal Wolsey who in this version is the arch manipulator and politico in extremis. In many ways the plot of the play is about his downfall and McNeice some does some fine barnstorming as the man bought low by overweening ambition/pride and the machinations of others. Surely Shakespeare and/or Fletcher could have given him a decent deathbed scene though, rather than have the death reported in (yet another) street scene discussion.
The other notable element of the production is the use of puppetry in the shape of a young wooden boy operated by Amanda Lawrence who, for part of her time on stage, seems to be the court Fool. I wasn’t quite sure whether this was supposed to represent Henry’s conscience or just be symbolic of the male heir he was so desperate to produce. Either way it didn’t really seem to add anything and if it doesn’t do that then why bother? Lawrence has a much better time of it as a chatty Welsh lady in waiting to Anne Bullen and brought some much needed (because there’s so little of it) comedy to proceedings
I’ve now managed to work my way through the whole of Shakespeare’s history cycle and am sorry that it had to end on probably the weakest of all the ten plays. I was in a production of Wolf Hall a couple of years back and this tells of much the same events but in a far more interesting format making the story into a more personal account of these troubled Tudor times and, dare I say it, outdoing the Bard.
Henry VIII is available on the Globe Theatre website – click here
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