June 09, 2010

Henry VIII @ Shakespeare's Globe

Since Dominic Dromgoole took over at Shakespeare's Globe, the prioritisation of the "house dramatist" over all others has disappointingly extended to the exclusion of plays by his contemporaries from the repertory - a real shame, as this was one of the features that used to make the Globe such an important venue from an academic space. Over the last few seasons, however, this has extended even further to the exclusion of Shakespeare's collaborators from their works. Timon of Athens was "By William Shakespeare" on all publicity materials, and this year it's John Fletcher's turn to be excluded from his own play. Not only does the title page of the programme and all publicity material only mention Shakespeare, but even Dromgoole's introduction to the season merely talks of the play as "a great blend of pageantry and realpolitik, written at the end of Shakespeare's career and showing all his formidable understanding of the passions and pettiness of those in power." Not until halfway through the lengthy booklet does Fletcher make an appearance. Happily, Gordon McMullan later dedicates a whole three page essay to the discussion of Fletcher's involvement, but this only comes once the Globe has enacted its own policy of exclusion on the younger dramatist.

This is, of course, incidental to the production, but serves as useful context for the Globe's first staging of the play. Following the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's crowning celebrated widely last year, Shakespeare's unofficial role as the nation's historian was here strengthened by the assertion - in marketing terms at least - of his sole authorship. Tying together national history and Shakespearean authorship has long been a method of consolidating British culture, and the image of Dominic Rowan's Henry VIII, dressed as in the Holbein portrait, striding out onto Shakespeare's stage at the climax of Shakespeare's play for the christening of Queen Elizabeth, couldn't have been more culturally conservative.

While it has to be noted, however, it's not a fair direction to pursue in reviewing this production, one of the Globe's best of the last few years. Mark Rosenblatt's intelligent, clear and entertaining production breathed life into a play often accused of being a string of processions, turning the pageantry into visual storytelling and injecting humour and energy into the court politics.

Key to the production's success was an intelligent use of the Globe's staging possibilities, incorporating modern tricks into a traditional design. An extended thrust jutted out downstage into the middle of the pit, which acted as a public space: here, Buckingham addressed the crowds and Anne processed in state. The centrality of this catwalk, surrounded by groundlings, effectively distinguished "public" moments from the rest of the play, providing a clear structure for the action. On the stage, a simple device allowed various levels of privacy to be easily established. Interior scenes were accessed via the upstage doors, but people exiting via these doors would immediately reappear via one of the side entrances on a red carpet that extended around the outer edges of the stage. Scenes were thus allowed to spill out of rooms and into the corridors, the liminal spaces that linked formal spaces. In these corridor spaces, nobles argued and whispered passionately, voicing in anger what they could not say in, for example, the King's presence. As well as making scenes more dynamic by allowing for shifts of pace and register, this created a fluidity of movement that kept the play moving at surprising speed, and allowed for the various Dukes to be better individualised, breaking out of their formal court characters as soon as they left the presence.

It was in these courtiers that much of the play's interest lay. The conflict between John Dougall's deliciously scornful Gardiner and Colin Hurley's naively enthusiastic Cranmer was a particular highlight, particularly as Henry ordered Gardiner to embrace Cranmer and found himself enveloped in the other man's arms. John Cummins found a sincere and volatile man in Cromwell, squaring up to Gardiner during the Privy Council's meeting and only agreeing reluctantly to the Council's demands, while Anthony Howell's Thomas More wore spectacles and presided over the other councillors with an uptight but just air. It was Peter Hamilton Dyer as Norfolk, though, who came through as the audience's touchstone. From his first appearance trying to soothe Buckingham while voicing his own displeasures, through his scornful treatment of Wolsey and deferrence to the King to his complicity in Cranmer's "trial", Norfolk came to represent the complexities of maneuvering the murky waters of this court. Constantly living on edge, always guarded in tone, his active but quiet background presence acted as the safe counterpoint to his more foolhardy peers, including Dickon Tyrrell's young Surrey, here an impetuous and aggressive young man who openly drew his sword on Wolsey and found himself the victim of Henry's screaming wrath after Cranmer's aborted arraignment.

This rich background of politics, coming into its own towards the end of the play, lent richness and depth to the main plot, dealing with the successive falls of Anthony's Buckingham, Kate Duchene's Katherine and Ian McNeice's Wolsey. That these characters provided the main interest was interestingly stressed by a Globe crowd who, unbidden and against what I certainly perceived to be the production's intentions, gave ovations following the final speeches of both Wolsey and Katherine, applauding their ultimate farewells in an unusual gesture of appreciation. The politics of Globe audiences occasion more attention in reviews than is often appropriate, but here I was fascinated, particularly as the final speeches are not especially grandstanding. As far as I could see, it was the recognisability of these famous historical figures that occasioned the reaction, but also the structured and formal arrangement of their departures. Breaking up the action neatly, and considering the original Globe performances would not have had intervals (although those at the Blackfriars would), these moments seemed to constitute natural breaks that were instinctively recognised by the audience, despite the fact that the production itself did not stress them. Part of the immense value of the Globe experiment is in documenting and interrogating these natural responses.

Duchene's performance, heavily accented, imagined Katherine as a sympathetic but volatile figure, all Spanish fire and confidence. Whether pleading for herself at Henry's feet or screaming blue murder at the servant who burst in on her repose, she was a fearsome figure and a real power at court. The dynamic between her and Wolsey was particularly fascinating: Wolsey used her tempestuousness as a negative standard against which to position his own apparent humility and reason, rearticulating their entire conflict as emotion vs intellect, passion vs reason. It was rare we saw Katherine outside of a public context, and thus with her defences down, but Duchene made the most of those moments. Alone with Ben Deery's gentle Griffith and Mary Doherty's emotional Patience (a lovely singing voice quivered as she attempted to comfort her queen) in her dying moments, her weariness allowed a much quieter side to Katherine's nature to emerge. As she dreamed, the court's Fool emerged with a puppet boy she had carried all along. The boy was made to bow to Katherine, and then to a smiling Buckingham, who entered to greet the Queen. Turning, she then saw Wolsey, who lifted a crown from the boy's head and began to place it on Katherine's own, before suddenly the whole troupe ran away, waving mockingly at her. Katherine awoke screaming, the vision of heavenly peace cruelly snatched from her, leaving the vision more troubling and disconcerting than usual, and her own death somewhat more ambiguous.

Howell's Buckingham, tall and casual, was imagined in an heroic vein, and his semi-ghostly appearance during his former steward's denunciation of him to Henry served to shed further doubt on the steward's testimony. Buckingham delivered his own reported lines with a tired and disappointed air, lightly mocking his enemy while accepting the weight of the testimony against him. McNeice's Wolsey, meanwhile, all jowls and underskirts, was a traditionally villainous Wolsey, bloated and arrogant. His presence in court was formidable, however much he presented himself in an attitude of humility. Yet it was the more sympathetic scenes that stood out, particularly his emotional parting from Cromwell, who wept for his master. This Wolsey knew and understood people, which was his strength, and McNeice impressively manipulated the feelings of his offstage as well as onstage audiences, resulting in the spontaneous applause that accompanied his final exit.

Miranda Raison was a very modern Anne Bolyen, right down to the make-up that distinguished her from her ladies. She was portrayed from the start as the consummate court player, flirting with Henry while keeping him at arm's length. When his true identity was revealed, she knelt in supplication, yet her eyes remained wide open and she breathed heavily as her mind worked overtime, evaluating both the consequences of her actions and how she might best take advantage of the position she found herself in. Her self-defence to Amanda Lawrence's Welsh Virginia, a worldly-wise and comically vulgar old lady, was clearly not meant, and she was able to stare Katherine in the face in her own chamber without apparent embarrassment. The first half closed as Anne left Katherine's presence to join Henry's embraces, and her later appearances - significantly with her headdress removed and her hair about her shoulders - saw her thoroughly confident in her new public position, already full-bellied even as she processed the Globe's pit. Her absence from the final scene, consequently, took on extra implied significance.

Through all of this moved Rowan's Henry VIII, a very human king. Henry's strength came from his ability to be whatever he needed to be at any given moment: thus, he performed the ceremonies with due reverence, joked freely with his nobles when playing at cards, and articulated rage at moments calculated for maximum effect, particularly as he defended Cranmer. This king was not weakened by his absence from court politics; rather, he was cast as above it, and the intervention of the final scenes was stage-managed to assert an absolute authority over his proud councillors. That coups such as this and his exposure of Wolsey seemed so effortless was a key part of Rowan's performance; the king not only got what he wanted, but in the way he wanted it too.

Under all the above was a rich seam of comedy. Michael Bertenshaw and John Dougall's randy Lovell and Sandys were an early comic highlight, particularly in the reaction of the women whom they attempted to court. The best was reserved for Sam Cox though, in a gloriously indulgent scene as the First Citizen in which he attempted to rig up poles on the catwalk for Buckingham's public confession, and repeatedly made a mess of it. The applause he received from the audience upon finally completing his task was such that both citizens were completely thrown off and forgot their lines, and a period of adlibbing was warmly encouraged by the audience as the actors attempted to get back into the flow. Moments such as these are again unique to the Globe, the participatory atmosphere adding much to any comic moment. This was similarly the case in the penultimate scene, as the Porters picked out unsuspecting targets in the audience as the butts of their abuse.

The addition of Amanda Lawrence's Fool, speaking the Prologue and Epilogue, was a final comic but also poignant innovation. In one revealing scene, Henry was revealed in private with the Fool as she dandled the puppet of a boy before her. In this simple image, we saw Henry's genuine anguish over the lack of a male heir, motivating all of his actions within the period of his career shown in the play. As Norfolk and Suffolk blundered in on him in this private moment, his rage reached a peak unmatched elsewhere in the play. By finding this neat emotional hook for Henry, Rosenblatt found the play's true heart: Henry, the king with absolute control over his court, in despair for the one thing he cannot control.


- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Duncan

    It struck me that this play parallels the other history plays in the Globe’s current season in that it contrasts the youth of Anne Bullen with the experience of Queen Katherine, much as we are invited to compare Henries IV and V.

    Whereas in the Henry IV plays we see a positive transition from one man’s youthful excesses to something more approximating his wiser father’s sense of responsibility, in Henry VIII we see the defeat of mature dignity in the person of Katherine and its replacement with youthful opportunism. Anne begins by having principles of simplicity and modesty and then immediately forswears them for advancement.

    08 Aug 2010, 10:04

  2. Well, that’s certainly one way of looking at it! I have to say though, I certainly didn’t get from this production any “principles of simplicity and modesty” from Anne even at the start – she was coy and flirtatious from the start, and as soon as she realised who Henry was, her brain was working overtime as she worked out her next move. I always think Henry VIII is quite ambivalent about its Anne character anyway – her absence from that last celebratory scene seems to me to deliberately evoke the fate that any audience knows she met….

    09 Aug 2010, 08:29

  3. Duncan

    Perhaps it would be better to say that Anne began by claiming to have principles of modesty and simplicity, a pretence that was soon seen to be hollow. But then again, what actual choice would someone in her position have had? Was refusing Henry a realistic option? Some have greatness thrust upon them…

    09 Aug 2010, 08:58


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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