Stratford Festival Theatre
When it comes to English royalty, Henry VIII must surely be the personality most often depicted across various art forms.
In addition to numerous portraits and biographies, he continues to dominate the literary stakes on both page and stage, having recently been a central figure in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy and, at one remove, Six.
Not too long after his reign ended, the King who married six times was also the subject of a play given his name and attributed to, but not necessarily wholly written by, William Shakespeare.
This Henry, played by Jonathan Goad, is an oddity, a bland lacuna at the centre of a piece that offers far more life, not to mention better lines, to his manipulative right-hand man, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, and not one but two queenly wives, particularly the long-suffering Catherine of Aragon, but also the flightier Anne Boleyn.
Nobody would seek to claim that Henry VIII is a highlight of the Shakespearean canon, but, as with every production from Stratford Festival, this 2¼-hour-long interpretation directed by Martha Henry on stage in 2019 builds up the intrigue nicely.
It also always looks beautiful, the simple, low-key designs for set and costumes each created by Francesca Callow proving highly effective.
Despite his priestly garb, Wolsey expertly portrayed by Rod Beattie, really is a rogue. From the start, the Cardinal is far more interested in promoting his own interests than those of the King whom he is employed to advise. Only when finally deposed does this slimy priest show appropriately religious humility.
On the other hand, Irene Poole’s Katherine, who has loyally served her husband for 20 years, failing only to yield a male heir capable of surviving long enough to take the crown, is very badly treated.
While experts may debate which parts of this play might actually have been written by the Bard, Katherine’s impassioned speeches, making her case when all has already been lost to Wolsey’s scheming, feel like the real thing, bringing to mind those of another wronged Queen, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale.
After the departures of Cardinal Wolsey and Queen Katherine, the play falls somewhat flat with what feels almost like repetition as the intrigues move on to attempts by noble lords to depose Wolsey’s successor, Brad Hodder playing Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, as Alexandra Lainfiesta, in the role of the new Queen Anne Boleyn, disappoints her husband by giving birth to a daughter.
This is a noble attempt to bring one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays to the stage and will please Shakespearean completists but also anyone who enjoys relatively lightweight trips back into English history.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher