History lessons are not supposed to be such fun. Howard Brenton's envisioning of the life and afterlife of Queen Anne Boleyn is a bawdy, raucous romp packed with ripe, modern language that still manages to address some serious issues in considerable depth.
The frail Miranda Raison, best known for her appearances in Spooks, opens the evening dressed in angelic, if not virginal white. She does so on a catwalk, deep amongst the groundling subjects from her future, teasing them and chatting amiably about her life and valuable bible.
This is one of three time frames for a play that consciously attempts to unite past, present and future through connecting themes.
Anne Boleyn's period is currently highly fashionable, as this biographical work joins Shakespeare (and Fletcher)'s Henry VIII at the Globe and the book that everyone seems to be reading at the moment, Hilary Mantel's gripping tale of Thomas Cromwell, Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall.
Even so Howard Brenton, whose Danton's Death has only just opened at the National, manages to dress up the story in a refreshing new suit of clothes, with laughter as important as historical veracity or any underlying message.
At the court of Anthony Howell's very randy Henry VIII, we witness the bold young Anne Boleyn setting out her stall to displace poor Katherine of Aragon and become "a new Queen for a new England".
She does so by offering a promise of fertility and a male heir to succeed Henry. More importantly, unlike her mother and sister who, it is suggested, succumbed much more easily, she tantalises the King, keeping his hands no higher than her knee in five long years of courtship.
Despite the opposition of Colin Hurley's brash Cardinal Wolsey, the strong-minded, would-be Queen threatens the link between the Church of Rome and England. In this, she is strengthened by the heretical William Tyndale (Peter Hamilton-Dyer) and more surprisingly that arch fixer Thomas Cromwell who in this depiction of his character comes across as a thoroughly nasty and ruthless piece of work, excellently realised by John Dougall.
In parallel with the young woman's story, the tale advances 67 years to the reign of King James, rendered by James Garnon as a kind of tic-ridden, regal Billy Connolly. While Henry woos Anne, James chases George Villiers for a different kind of illicit relationship.
There are further congruences as, where the husband to six women but father to no living son ditches the Catholic faith for sex, money and the prospect of a living heir, Shakespeare's patron wittily knocks fundamentalist religious heads together in an effort to reform and unify the church.
2½ hours fly by amidst innumerable laughs, some intelligently presented if occasionally dubious history and the high quality acting that has been characteristic at this theatre of late.
Director John Dove and his whole team both on and off stage are to be congratulated for turning what should by rights have been a dry, worthy evening into something really special.
Anita Butler reviewed the 2011 revival
Reviewer: Philip Fisher