If ever there's a limit to the merits of original practice in Shakespearean theater—actors using only cue scripts, mounting plays with only a week's worth of rehearsal and without the guiding vision of a director, and presenting those plays on a bare stage without benefit of electricity—Henry VIII would be it. Right? This sprawling, seemingly stodgy history that Shakespeare wrote at the end of his career, in collaboration with John Fletcher, surely would need the cuts and interpolations and condensing and costly sets and cool effects and clever director's vision of the modern theater to matter a whit for an audience today. Such a production the Folger staged a couple of years ago, the only other time I've seen this play acted in a theater. That fine production was my benchmark.
It turns out, though, that Henry VIII works just fine and entertains, too, in the text-centric, bare-to-the-bones style of the American Shakespeare Center's Actors' Renaissance Season production at the Blackfriars Playhouse. This is not to exonerate fully the play itself. Henry VIII is still, at times, a pedantic piece with confusing narrative (don't even try to keep track of who's who among the courtiers) and an absurdly contracted timeline (the marriage of Henry and Anne moves from speculation to rumor to already happened within a half dozen lines). However, it also is a captivating drama of personalities with several intertwining plots of intrigue, a conundrum of a title character, and two creations in Cardinal Wolsey and Katherine that rival Shakespeare's greatest roles. Furthermore, even when staged in Tudor costumes and with Jacobean production practices, Henry VIII unspools eerie parallels to 21st century headlines.
I fear I pound this point ad nauseum, but the key to such a production working is the company members' skills in speaking Shakespeare's (and Fletcher's) verse, their total trust in Shakespeare's (and Fletcher's) script, and their innate understanding of Shakespeare's (and Fletcher's) staging conditions and how to make them work in the intimate playing space of the replication of Shakespeare's (and Fletcher's) own Blackfriars. The twelve actors also give 100 percent devotion to each of their characters, no matter how many they might play among the four-score-and-more in the play. Ronald Peet, for example, gives pompous authority to Cardinal Campeius while his Thomas Cranmer shows courage but a faith on the verge of unraveling in the face of the snowballing court conspiracy against him. At one point as Cranmer, Peet stands on the trial dock in perfect stillness, palms joined and pointing down like a monument of pious patience. Such details illustrate the thoroughness of the individual actor and the collective company, too.
The production opens on a light note before the play's first lines are spoken. Benjamin Curns playing Henry VIII gives the preshow speech of the playhouse's instructions and promotions—the rules of his realm, he says—and upon callong for his wife to lend assistance, both Sarah Fallon as Katherine and Tracie Thomason as Anne Bullen emerge. Positioned on either side of the stage, they start hurling witty insults at each other fully integrated into the preshow spiel. After this humorous display of cattiness, Curns formally introduces his character by singing "I'm Henry VIII, I Am," soft-shoe shuffling to the novelty song by Herman's Hermits.
Silly stuff, but it's in keeping with the temper of the play's prologue, which Fallon delivers next, starting off with lighthearted jokes about separating us from our shillings but then promising that she and her fellow players will make us "be sad." "Think ye see the very persons of our noble story as they were living; think you see them great, and followed with the general throng and sweat of thousand friends; then, in a moment, see how soon this mightiness meets misery." The self-directed company takes this as the production's core values: with only twelve players and a bare stage, they will not strive for a realistic rendering, but they will strive to move us.
And they do, Fallon's Katherine in particular. She's given the gift of a fourth straight year playing a great Shakespearean queen at the Blackfriars (after playing Margaret in the Henry VI–Richard III cycle), and the gift is ours, too. Her Katherine is an obedient queen in her first scene with Henry, a strong woman but one who knows her place and when she's overstepped. Curns's Henry loves her, even though he's frustrated that she has not given him a male heir, and it's not until he meets Anne that he turns from his first wife (even after falling in love with Anne, Curns's Henry shows high regard if not lingering love for his first wife, even during the divorce proceedings). Fallon finds Katherine's reserve and resolve in the trial scene, and both her wisdom and ire come galloping out in her private interview with Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius. Wolsey, played by John Harrell, has to utilize every genius in his disingenuousness to outflank the queen. Fallon accomplishes the prologue's promise that we will "be sad" with her death scene, using a change of makeup to show Katherine's physical disintegration while her measured movements, a crack in her voice, and pleading eyes reveal her emotional disintegration.
This death scene contains what on the page seems like a silly, superfluous vision, a detailed stage direction giving specific instruction for "six personages, clad in white robes" to dance and pass a garland back and forth and toward Katherine who should "make in her sleep signs of rejoicing, and holdeth up her hands to heaven." Modern productions, if they don't cut the vision, would be inclined to use special effects to carry out this sequence, but the ASC actors perform it exactly as directed in the First Folio. Amazingly, it works. It's moving, it holds the audience in thrall, and it heightens Katherine's tragedy when the vision dissipates even as she's holding up her hands to heaven.
Katherine's is only one of a series of individual downfalls that come about during King Henry's course-changing rule and the shifting loyalties of courtiers who grab hold of a wheel of fortune that Henry's ways and whimsies keep ever oscillating. The Duke of Buckingham (Gregory Jon Phelps) is the first to fall, sent to his execution upon the machinations of Wolsey. Wolsey goes down next, bringing about his own toppling by overstretching his arrogance. The final victim is supposed to be Cranmer, but a now-wiser Henry intercedes. Another victim, of course, is Anne, but she doesn't lose her head for another 700 or so days after the play ends.
Wolsey's story is not on the scale of tragedy as those of Katherine and Buckingham, not because he's a bad man but because Shakespeare–Fletcher gives the defrocked cardinal a marvelous speech of redemption: when he loses his power, he finds true grace as a consequence. The brilliance in Harrell's playing is in the Wolsey at work leading up to this moment. Harrell has played a lot of smarmy villains on the Blackfriars stage and manages to do so with disarming charm, but he dials back the villainy in his Wolsey. At no point do we see him heading for an inevitable fall, and we also understand how the courtiers can see through his schemes, but Henry is totally taken in. Wolsey served Henry VII, and his intelligence and seeming affection for his former monarch's now-reigning son is understandably winning. Henry sees the light only when he accidently comes upon Wolsey's expense account. Wolsey, in particular, is a character who seems to have not stepped out of the pages of a 16th century play but into the theater from cable newscasts. He is a zealot in his ideal of patriotism, his dedication to a cause, and his loyalty to his king, but as he rises to power, his ego expands as well, and with that power-cum-ego come wealth and luxury, the having of which ultimately blinds him to the roots of his original calling. How often do we see today how a movement's messiah, a political cause's champion, or a leader's leading lieutenant can slip on the gilded ladder his or her ascent had become?
Henry himself remains a man for all reasons in this play, but rather than looking for a central character in the part, Curns plays him as written. And, as written, the part manages itseslf just fine on the stage. It's a Henry that emerges over the course of the play, gullible in the beginning, still immature in attending Wolsey's party as a masquer and there meeting Anne, confused and confounded in the Katherine trial scenes, impatient with the circumstances around Anne's labor and the birth of not a boy but yet another girl, and right royal in his haranguing the council over its treatment of Cranmer. Curns physically resembles the famous portraits of the real king, but instead of portraying an image of that king, he portrays a man growing up before our eyes. If it's a portrait that seems inconsistent and vague in analysis, Curns reveals the part to be a life. Who among us doesn't live our lives with some inconsistency and vagueness?
It's easy to dismiss Henry VIII as something less than Shakespearean, aside from the fact that it's as much Fletcherian as Shakespearean. It is an anomaly among Shakespeare's histories that otherwise focus on the Wars of the Roses (the same holds for another maligned history play of Shakespeare's, King John), and it is a rambling work: rambling in the number of characters, in the chronology, in the verse, and in the stage conventions it employs (frowning monarch, masks, and supernatural visions, oh my!). And what's its point? many have asked. It has no climactic battle, no tragic hero, no ultimate redemption, not even a promise of marriage in the final scene (in fact, the audience knows the marriage at the end will not last, and four more marriages are yet to come).
The play's point seems hidden in the riddle of Cranmer's prophecy of the infant Elizabeth. Critics have long seen this passage as Shakespeare's valedictory tribute to his beloved queen who allowed his theatrical career to flourish. Scholarship, however, now assigns this passage to Fletcher's pen, and halfway through it Cranmer shifts his focus to King James as Elizabeth's "ashes new create another heir as great in admiration as herself." It's interesting how the play not only skirts Henry VIII's break with Rome but also treats Katherine and Wolsey respectfully. Within the play's context, the political issue that drove every important decision Henry made was having a rightful heir to his throne. Elizabeth was born just forty-eight years after the Battle of Bosworth when her grandfather, Henry VII, won the crown from Richard III, ending the Wars of the Roses. That's not enough time for civil contention to fully dissipate, and Henry VIII knew that even a king as mighty as Henry V couldn't guarantee a peaceful country without an heir of sufficient age and wherewithal to succeed him. Meanwhile, the play itself was written just 80 years from the time of the events it portrays. James, also a direct descendant of Henry VII, may have seemed secure on his throne, but internal conspiracies were still a concern, and while the play only hints at the religion-fed bloodshed about to follow Henry VIII's reign (the historical Cranmer would be martyred by Mary, the daughter of Henry and Katherine), religious conflict was gurgling under the surface of Jacobean society. Sectarian civil war—pitting conservative Protestants against not-quite-so-conservative Protestants—would break out thirty years hence.
Think of it like the movie Lincoln. How far we have come from the passage of the 13th amendment outlawing slavery and the day we have a man of color as president of the United States. Yet, how far have we not progressed psychologically and socially from the racial, geographical, and political divides of 1864. For that matter, how far have we come from the political wrangling, the policy zealots, the sectarian tensions, and the divorcing of a wife who is no longer politically expedient of 1530s England? That's the point.
This review also appears on Shakespeareances.com