Henry VIII

William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
AandBC
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon
(2006)

Production photograph

Holy Trinity, the church where Shakespeare is buried, isn't the most obvious place in which to stage one of his plays. Henry VIII, the bard's collaboration with John Fletcher and possibly his last work for the theatre, is one of the most infrequently performed works in the canon. All credit then to AandBC and director Gregory Thompson for coming up with such a delightful and cleverly staged production.

Shakespeare and Fletcher were treading on dangerous ground by taking as their subject Henry VIII, the monarch whose marital problems helped to bring about the birth of the Church of England. His first wife Katherine of Aragon, a woman widely respected and admired for putting up with Henry's infidelities, was the mother of the unpopular Mary Tudor; his second wife, Anne Boleyn, gave birth to the idolized Elizabeth I but was executed three years later on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest. Despite the play's subtitle, All is True, the authors' understandable desire not to ruffle royal or clerical feathers caused them to play fast and loose with historical facts.

The same could, of course, be said about Shakespeare's earlier history plays, but Henry VIII is in a class of its own. Although there are two overarching themes - abuse of power and lack of self-knowledge - the play is composed of loosely connected scenes, with ample opportunity for stage spectacle and a hint of the supernatural element so prominent in Shakespeare's late works. Add the great set-piece speeches of Buckingham, Katherine, Wolsey and Cranmer and you have a play which, in spite of its technical shortcomings, deserves to be better known.

I doubt if Henry VIII has ever been performed in such an atmospheric venue, unless of course the play was originally staged at Blackfriars - the actual location of Katherine's trial. The acting area is roughly as wide as a railway carriage and twice as long with banks of seats on both sides. Audience members, as well as running the risk of "Wimbledon neck", are occasionally required to hold props and stand in for members of the jury. Inevitably there are a few clumsy moments, but on the whole the production is a stunningly successful example of site-specific theatre.

Henry VIII was a favourite with Victorian actor-managers because of its pageantry and crowd scenes (Beerbohm Tree's production boasted a cast of 127) but AandBC, with the aid of some judicious cuts and reassignment of speeches, manages to work wonders with a mere fifteen actors. Anthony Byrne's Henry simmers with barely suppressed violence from his first entrance, dragging Katherine roughly to her feet when she kneels to him; whether this interpretation is fully justified by the text is a moot point, but it makes the King less of a hypocrite by embarking on an affair with Anne before being stricken by qualms of conscience regarding his first marriage. Corinne Jaber as Katherine looks much too young for the role but conveys every nuance of the Queen's heroism and misplaced loyalty. Anthony O'Donnell is a comically sinister Wolsey and the excellent cast includes Derek Hutchinson (Buckingham), Jem Wall (Cramner) and Cara Kelly (Old Lady).

Holy Trinity itself is a star of the production, particularly when Wolsey's feast is interrupted by a burst of fireworks outside as Henry and his friends pound on the door. Once admitted they prove to be disguised not, as the stage directions indicate, as shepherds, but as rams - one of whom singles out a lady in the front row for his lascivious attentions (this must surely be the first lap dance ever performed in an English church). The font becomes the backdrop for Katherine's deathbed scene, and there is a wonderfully touching moment when she rises and walks slowly down the darkened nave towards the only source of light - the chancel under which Shakespeare is buried.

Of course, the font also comes in handy for the play's best-known episode, Elizabeth's christening. To modern ears Cranmer's divinely inspired panegyric to Gloriana and James I can sound like the most servile flattery, and at least one production of Henry VIII has stooped so low as to play it for laughs. But Jem Wall as the future Protestant martyr handles the long oration beautifully, despite being occasionally upstaged by the youngest member of the cast - a three-month old baby! I doubt if I'll ever see this scene done more movingly. It's a fitting end to what is, in my opinion, the most satisfying visiting production of the Complete Works season so far.

Pete Wood also reviewed this production

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson