We're a week into rehearsal now, and have blocked the first half of Henry. The cast is very strong across the board, and it looks like one of the main strengths of the production is going to be clarity and accessibility; nearly the whole play is in verse, and the actors for the most part are speaking it with intelligence and clear purpose. Sean, as Henry, commands the stage effortlessly, and there is fine grounded work being laid down by the actors playing the Chamberlain, Norfolk and Suffolk, Griffith/Vaux, and Buckingham, among others. There's a nice crackle developing in the confrontations between Wolsey and Katherine, played by Mare Trevathan ("a Cornish name," as Pistol would have it). She and I were guest speakers yesterday at a summer-session class in theatre appreciation taught by Noel johnson, a recently retired Shakespeare teacher and community-theatre actor who is having a welcome first taste of acting in a professional company. A majority of the students were bright, interested and asked intelligent questions about the profession and the actor's craft; one query I particularly liked was, "At what point in the run of a show is it best to go see it?" Mare said to avoid opening night; I suggested that the next-to-the-last week is often the strongest, when the rhythms and interplay have settled in comfortably but before some of the sloppiness and self-indulgence that sometimes marks the last few performances of a run.
My thinking and background reading about Wolsey-- my main source is Alison Weir's The Six Wives of Henry VIII, supplemented by David Starkey's more scholarly Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII-- are subtly changing my perceptions of the character. It is certainly tempting to see him as the villain of the piece; Shakespeare does not hesitate to show him as devious, scheming and power-hungry. But looking at the record, I can see that he was in a completely impossible situation. He was trying to serve two masters; his primary allegiance was to his King, who had raised him to unprecedented executive power and great wealth, but he also felt bound to the service of Rome (he was himself twice in the 1520's a candidate for the Papacy), at a time when the current Pope was fatally weakened and wholly intimidated by the Emperor Charles V, Katherine's nephew, who was dead set against the granting of Henry's divorce. Wolsey's position was untenable; he had neither enough influence with the See to get the King what he wanted, nor enough distance from Rome to countenance severing the English Church's ties with it. I think the circumstances dictated that his efforts were doomed to failure from the first. Not a good man, certainly, and perhaps he deserved his disgrace; but ultimately I think his fall was due to factors beyond his control. Which is to say: such justice as he received was more poetic than directly merited.