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Henry VIII

William Shakespeare (and John Fletcher)
Shakespeare's Globe
(2010)

Production photo

This depiction of extracts from the life of the much married monarch is perhaps more Shake than spear. Though the programme's title page ungenerously fails to credit him, the majority of the text, it is believed, was actually written by John Fletcher rather than the Bard.

If the collaboration is known at all, it is because this was the play that burned down the original Globe Theatre just under 400 years ago.

The period covered is almost exactly the same as that in Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize-winning portrayal of Henry VIII from the oblique perspective of the life of Thomas Cromwell, here a bit part player. This is the awkward time of transition between wives one and two.

In the Shakespeare/Fletcher version, the key adversaries of Dominic Rowan's fickle King fare badly. His first wife, the truly noble and badly wronged Katherine (of Aragon) is ditched because she fails to bear her husband a male heir.

Kate Duchêne ensures that the wronged Queen remains honourable throughout her trials both real and metaphorical. The actress rises to a worthy peak in her character's speech to the court, when she knows that all is lost, and again in her painful death throes.

Ian McNeice makes "worthy Wolsey" someone that it is easy to dislike. The corpulent, "cunning Cardinal" is a duplicitous priest who would sell his soul to the devil for advantage so that when he got his comeuppance in a very clunky piece of stagecraft, there will have been few tears shed.

As history has made abundantly clear, despite his own lack of constancy, Henry gained little by running through wives. Miranda Raison's Anne Boleyn is though at least a younger, prettier replacement, if equally unable to bear a boy heir. She does produce the baby Elizabeth, the senior writer's late patron to whose glory the play's ending pays homage.

Mark Rosenblatt's production looks good, thanks to period costumes designed by Angela Davies, and is strong on pomp and circumstance. Even so, this is a long, wordy three hours containing mere flashes of poetic brilliance, one would wager penned by Shakespeare, but who, at this range, can be sure?

The intrusive backing music and soundscape can enhance the period feel but it also combines unhelpfully with some less than clear diction.

On this showing, Henry VIII should primarily be seen as a play for Shakespearean completists, Henry freaks and possibly devotees of Wolf Hall, who can relish seeing that novel's main characters brought to life before their eyes.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher