Henry VIII

William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
Holy Trinity Church, Stratford

Pproduction photo

The most dramatic moment in the rarely-performed Henry VIII, better known in Shakespeare's lifetime by the alternative title of as All is True, occurred during a performance at the Globe on June 29, 1613, when a spark from a cannon shot set fire to the thatched roof of the theatre and started a blaze which gutted the building.

For some writers since then, the incident has served as a sort of divine judgement on a work which, it is argued, shows its author well below scratch. It is known that he collaborated with John Fletcher on the play, an encomium to the Tudor dynasty and the Jacobean successor, James I. But the extent to which Shakespeare contributed is much disputed. US writer Harold Bloom has registered his doubt that a "considerable portion" could be by his collaborator.

However, others, such as biographer Anthony Holden, disagree, holding the play, as Mark Antony did Lepidus, "slight" and "unmeritable". For Holden, the piece is a "pompous, prettified and pallid version of events" from 1520 to 1533, that is from the Field of the Cloth of Gold to the baptism of Elizabeth I, the pomp and pageantry providing the "only reason" why the play is still staged.

This being Shakespeare though means such a summary judgement does not tell the whole story. Happily, visiting company AandBC offer a rare opportunity to make up one's own mind and for that we should be grateful. Even more enticing is the fact that the play is staged in Holy Trinity Church where the bard himself is buried. This, though, brings both benefits and disadvantages, the latter arising from the fact that the action takes place at either end of the nave along which banks of seats face each other. The arrangements force one to look left and right, as at Wimbledon, and out past the head of the next person, which after nearly three hours left this viewer feeling, with Richard III, "not shaped for sportive tricks".

It also means that when actors are facing away from where you happen to be sat, whole snatches of speeches are rendered inaudible with some of the cast faring worse than others. This is made more problematic by the fact that in his later plays Shakespeare returned to a less naturalistic, much more knotty, rhetorical style of writing which requires close concentration. The play also features several clunky passages of exposition in which character A brings character B up to speed with what has been happening in France, at court, or elsewhere.

Holden certainly has a point in one respect: the title All is True could hardly be more inappropriate. Of course Shakespeare was never going to depict Henry as the villain that he was. But not only is he here merely misguided, everyone else is either virtuous, or finds virtue at the death. The only unreconstructed scoundrel is the Pope. Even the vile Wolsey who has devoted his life to amassing wealth and power, dispatching those - like Buckingham - who got in his way to the scaffold, repents after his fall in a scene of insufferable lachrymosity. Worse yet is the "raw work at the font" committed by Cramner (who in real life was subsequently burnt at the stake by Henry) after the baptism of Elizabeth.

Director Gregory Thomson wisely opts for period, i.e. Elizabethan costume, which affords some attractive pomp and pageant, showcased by the church interior, notably the previously mentioned baptism scene and the coronation of Anne. Undoubtedly Antony Byrne shines brightest among the 15-strong ensemble as a vigorous, hot-tempered Henry very much in the Laughton-Holbein mould. Atmospheric accompaniment, composed by David Stoll, is provided by Peter Summers, on the organ, and Christopher Goodwin on lute and percussion, adds to the spectacle, as does the plainsong which fills the church as the play opens.

As Dr Johnson observed of Paradise Lost, I doubt anyone ever wished Henry VIII longer than it was. But equally, to paraphrase Johnson, it was a production both worth seeing and worth going to see. And as we emerged from the church and into the night, the bells ringing out for the newly baptized infant Elizabeth, it was impossible not to feel moved.

J.D. Atkinson also reviewed this production

Reviewer: Pete Wood