Listening to Etta James’ ‘Burning Down the House’ would not be amiss in a discussion of the Globe Theatre’s production of Henry VIII, given that it was a cannon shot fired during the performance of this play that brought about the original Globe’s fiery end on 29 June, 1613. Despite its unfortunate connection with its theatrical space, Henry VIII marks the second play in the Globe’s ‘Kings and Rogues’ season, which began with Macbeth and is set to include both parts of Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor. Henry VIII is a risky choice, since it is so little performed and presents complex theatrical challenges: namely how to package discrete historical units into entertaining theater for a modern audience. The Globe’s Henry VIII production, directed by Mark Rosenblatt, succeeds in offering pageant-filled spectacle and manages to delve somewhat into complex issues of truth, power, gender, and representation. At times, however, it remains a frustratingly dull and unsatisfying performance.
Henry VIII follows the monarch (played by Dominic Rowan) in the final years of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Kate Duchêne). It proceeds with his subsequent divorce and remarriage to Anne Bullen (played by Miranda Raison, who will appear in the title role of the Globe’s upcoming new play, Anne Boleyn), followed by his dismissal of the Machiavellian Cardinal Wolsey (Ian McNeice). Scattered among these main events are further political intrigues of sedition, treason, and heresy, some of which seem too underdeveloped or too distant from the modern viewer to make for compelling drama. Fundamentally, the production suffers from the play itself. For an audience conditioned to respond to a strong central plot and unifying devices, Henry VIII comes across as episodic and uneven, including a collection of scenes that contain characters we may or may not care about and plot points we may or may not find interesting. Scholars conjecture that Henry VIII originally transferred to the Globe from the Blackfriars’ smaller, more intimate theatrical space. This would have benefitted the (current) Globe’s production by heightening the drama and providing a more engaging opening sequence. Indeed, the first twenty minutes of exposition and political background necessary to understand much of what follows is lost in a combination of quick and unclear speaking and the sound of planes flying overhead.
This is not to say that the Globe’s Henry VIII creates a feeling of complete indifference, as some scenes are expertly formed: Kate Duchêne’s Katherine proves a force to be reckoned with, holding the audience spellbound during her defense in front of Henry and her accusations against Cardinal Wolsey. Amanda Lawrence gives a hilarious turn as a lady-in-waiting, while as the Fool she manipulates a puppet of a male child, which haunts the King like a specter (a tangible and twisted reminder of his desire for a male heir). Yet Rowan and McNeice play their roles with such little shading that dramatic opportunities are lost in a general ho-hum of ambivalence.
In other respects, Rosenblatt’s production offers an entertaining feast for the eyes. Henry VIII contains some of the most extensive stage directions in the canon (it should be noted that Henry VIII is a collaborative play between Shakespeare and John Fletcher). Pomp and circumstance play a key role in the presentation, and the production offers a goodly bit of sumptuous Tudor costuming (nine people are listed in the costuming credits), regalia, and processionals, forcing some members of the audience to rush out of the way of oncoming ladies-in-waiting lest they be subsumed in endless meters of fabric.
As is common in Globe productions, music plays an important role, with a coterie of five musicians on anything from sackbuts to bagpipes accompanying the stage drama, augmented by the presence of child choristers for the coronation of Anne Bullen and the christening of (infant) Elizabeth I. Yet it is Rosenblatt’s staging that provides surprising and complementary depth to the text. The stage, of which a portion is thrust deep into the audience, contains a red carpet on its edges, which the actors move along as if in corridors or to enter the center stage area which serves as private dining hall, boudoir, or bedchamber. By this device, the actors mark the interior and exterior world, imperative in a play that deals so much with the intersection between the personal and the political.
In producing Henry VIII, the Globe presents what is, for a modern audience, an awkwardly structured play, but not one without relevance to our gossipy news culture, manipulative politicians, religious squabbles, taxation troubles, and unpopular wars:
Katherine to Henry: The subjects’ grief / Comes through commissions which compels from each / The sixth part of his substance, ... and the pretence for this / Is named your wars in France.
That the production achieves moments of brilliant engagement is worthy of commendation; however, these are often overshadowed by lackluster characterization and an uneven tone.
Henry VIII runs May 15 – August 21, 2010 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, Bankside, London, UK SE1 9DT. Information can be found at http://www.shakespeares-globe.org/.