Every year, the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival stages one of their productions using similar methods as Shakespeare’s own time: the actors arrive with their lines learned, work out the action and blocking themselves, scrounge their costumes from whatever is available, and put everything together in just a few days. Their offering this year is Henry VIII, and the result is an intriguing look at a lesser-known play that also showcases the art of theater itself.
Though dramatizing Henry’s romance of Anne Boleyn (Anne Bullen, in the play) and subsequent divorce of Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII focuses not so much on the impact of these incidents on the monarch’s life as on all the accompanying political machinations; it thus seems appropriate that this production adopts a very metatheatrical angle, likewise exposing the inner workings of the play itself. The set, designed by Samina Vieth, is borrowed from the PSF’s production of The 39 Steps: a typical red velvet proscenium arch frames a noirish facade of blackened bricks, and in this production at least the sandbag counterbalances are clearly visible hanging from the rafters. The production actually begins with all of the play’s components onstage: the comfy green armchair that represents Henry’s throne, trunks and tables, musical instruments, racks of costumes, the fake baby who will stand in for the future Queen Elizabeth, and, of course, the actors. They set and break down each scene themselves, another nod to the theatricality of the production.
Despite having been scavenged from the racks of other productions (or the actors’ own closets), the costuming still has a coherent theme: the 1930s, with various 16th-century items donned over top when needed. Henry VIII wears a bowler and waistcoat with his trousers tucked into his boots and a variety of rich brocaded and befurred robes; as a nod to his athletic nature, his sleeves are always rolled up (or discarded completely, as when he appears with his undershirt, suspenders, and tennis racket). Queen Katherine appears in tasteful dark green or black velvet cocktail dresses, her hairnet and veil a nod to her Spanish heritage. Anne Bullen, meanwhile, is almost entirely “modern”, with her red dress and gold fascinator: the exception is at her coronation, when she is shown wearing the maroon and fur robe that Katherine had cast off in frustration in an earlier scene. The Prologue, even as he proclaims, “I come no more to make you laugh,” dons a pair of Groucho glasses, while other characters sport jerkins and suit pants, doublets and bow-ties, and vintage dresses with rolled medieval hats: a clever melding of two eras.
The metatheatrical theme running throughout the production has an unexpected bonus: when several of the actors stumble over their dialogue and demand “Line!” (though always, as consummate professionals, fully in-character), the effect is not nearly as jarring as one would expect. Memorization issues aside, the cast is very strong. Ian Bedford as Henry himself cuts an imposing and energetic figure, fully capable of generating the presence needed to dominate the play even in the many scenes when he is not featured. Richard B. Watson’s Cardinal Wolsey has the charisma to match him, and balances out his slick political maneuvering and commanding demeanor with some more natural reactions: his touching sorrow at his steep descent from grace, of course, but also his trepidation and discomfort at being forced to confront a raging, weeping Katherine. She is powerfully played by Susan Riley Stevens, with a regal presence as great as Henry’s even as she is pushed from her royal position. Stevens adapts a Spanish accent and a noble bearing with ease: even when Katherine knows she has lost her puissance, she never appears less than a true daughter of kings. The opportunities provided by exploiting the conventions of the theater are shown by the many double-castings of Christopher Patrick Mullen. First appearing as the Duke of Buckingham, his spleen at Wolsey gives way to a dignified resignation when he finds out he has been framed for having treasonous designs on the throne. Mullen then resurfaces as the Old Lady, Anne Bullen’s friend, who possesses a much more pragmatic view of the lengths people will go to for power – and who, in an ironic callback, is given the privilege of informing Henry that he has another child but still no male heir, the exact situation Buckingham was accused of wanting to take advantage of. Mullen also plays Cromwell, Wolsey’s loyal secretary and the only one privy to the cardinal’s breakdown, which makes his performance as Griffith, the attendant who convinces Katherine of Wolsey’s virtues after he has died, even more appropriate. Mullen excels at both his individual roles and the subtle ties among them, adding another layer to an already thoughtful production.
The collaborative efforts of the cast more than make up for the lack of director. The production is tightly paced, and the text is supplemented sparingly but effectively with a few extra character appearances: Anne Bullen watches Queen Katherine’s downfall but picks up her discarded robe with a speculative look; Henry jogs across the stage with his tennis racket, followed by a wheezing Duke of Suffolk, in the middle of the night preceding his daughter’s birth; an adult Elizabeth, in the only truly period costume in the production, makes an appearance during Cranmer’s prophetic baptismal speech (a much more striking presence than the fake baby). Equal thought is devoted to the blocking. Wolsey at the height of his power presides over one of his parties from an upper balcony like a benevolent deity, bestowing blessings and giant martini glasses down on the masses with equal ease. Meanwhile, at the trial of Cranmer, the door in the back wall is used for the first time, emphasizing the ignominy of his having to wait at it; the council then stakes out the four corners of the stage and denies Cranmer his seat before Henry’s empty armchair, forcing him to stand like a prisoner – as Henry himself watches from above, the literal higher power about to descend and disrupt all of the council’s careful scheming.
This attentiveness to detail is what makes this production so effective and enjoyable, since every aspect – whether drawing attention to the production’s theatrical workings or not – appears to be deliberately planned. Despite the limitations in comparison to modern theatrical methods, the cast and crew show that with sufficient ingenuity and devotion, any Shakespeare play is more than capable of living up to the legacy of their original productions.