Henry VIII, by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, is a strange play. It is rarely performed these days, the play’s Arden editor Gordon McMullan notes that its decline in popularity since the nineteenth century has matched the decline in theatre’s unquestioning pageantry and celebration of royalty.
Certainly, it offers us grand characters on a grand stage: Henry himself, Anne Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey and a scene-stealing, visionary Katherine of Aragon. There are falls from grace, deceptions, seductions and intrigue and yet the play is not a parade of crowd-pleasing grotesques such as Shakespeare’s earliest history plays, nor a redemptive portrait of flawed power, as so many of Shakespeare’s later works are. It is something in between, barely touching on the characters’ inner workings, and the Globe’s current production offers little illumination.
The Globe, along with the RSC, has a near-duty to perform plays such as Henry VIII, those too uncommercial for less prestigious companies, so that we get to see the lesser-know byways of our greatest poet’s works. Sometimes these are a triumph – the RSC’s history cycle at the Roundhouse in 2008 revealed Henry VI as a monumental theatrical achievement. Sometimes, however, we can experience first hand the limitations of a text in performance. Such with Henry VIII. Continue reading