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Anne Boleyn

Howard Brenton
English Touring Theatre and Shakespeare's Globe
Darlington Civic Theatre

You could be forgiven for thinking that Queen Anne Boleyn was a sexually licentious predator, perhaps even a witch or maybe just a pawn manipulated by an ambitious father. There is some truth, no doubt, in all these perceptions of her but Howard Brenton’s play sees her as an extraordinary, manipulative and feisty woman with plenty of education and an acerbic wit.

We begin at the end, or at least just after she’s beheaded as Jo Herbert skips on stage dressed all in white, carrying a blood soaked shopping bag. She addresses the audience in the style of a dead comedienne as ‘demons of the future’ and asks us if we want to see what she has in the bag. “Go on, you know you want to see,” she taunts, playing on our love of guts and gore. Her feral laughter rings out as she produces a small bible, waving it in the air like she’s just won first prize in a national competition. She does produce the head, held proudly by the hair and explains a little of her demise, but the bible she holds is the key to the story.

Then we must press fast forward by 70 years to find James I, newly crowned and freshly arrived from Scotland. Brenton’s characterisation of a cross-dressing King James I is very clever, rather freaky and enduringly amusing. James Garnon rises to the challenge and comes out half King and half Eddie Izzard; his Tourette Syndrome-like, tongue-waving, shouting and swearing is played with superb conviction as he sets a cracking pace.

Most of the first half covers the religious indigestion of the age, constantly on repeat and entirely at the whim of the monarch in power. An orange-clad Cardinal Wolsey (Colin Hurley) stomps around, Julius D’Silva is a powerfully pompous Thomas Cromwell with his fingers in all the Tudor pies. The pendulum of religion swings loud as we find Anne secretly meeting with William Tyndale (Max Gell) who procures a copy of his banned egalitarian bible for her husband Henry VIII (David Sturzaker) to read. I loved Sturzaker’s costume of black with those precise jewel like slits of red showing through. In fact Jane Gonin and Emiline Harris have done a sterling job with the most sumptuous costumes, beautifully designed by Michael Taylor.

Director John Dove and Choreographer Sian Williams have positioned this coach load of amazingly talented actors into a simmering, often dark, political and courtly scenario that trips around to the delightful pleasantries of harpsichord, violin and bass viol, courtesy of musicians Jon Banks, Emilia Benjamin and Liam Byrne.

If this all sounds like a history lesson, well I suppose it is in a fashion, but there’s plenty of laughter, especially in the second half as we see James I dressed in Anne’s coronation gown, dancing hysterically with Simpkin, a lively and explicitly flirtatious, John Cummins.

This almost feels like two plays stitched together, as each half could stand alone. All of it is drenched with professionalism and I particularly liked Jo Herbert’s breathless, Joan-of-Arc style which has made me realise that Anne Boleyn was a thoroughly modern heroic chic worthy of cult status; and I am now a converted demon of the future and a Boleyn fan.

Long live Queen Anne!

Reviewer: Helen Brown