Henry VIII

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.

Henry VIII is an equivocal, subtle text and it is entirely lost in this production, both in terms of volume and interpretation. There are pleasing aristocratic processions in rich period costume, there is a masque, but even characters such as Wolsey and Katherine are lost in weak or bizarre performances. Ian McNeice’s Wolsey is a mountainous, scarlet presence, boding splendid malevolence, but his delivery is halting and uncertain, barely reaching the audience. His fall from grace, ending with a justly celebrated meditation of the follies of ambition, falls flat. Kate Duchêne delivers a heartbroken Queen Katherine, the play’s moral centre. But Katherine’s decline in health, slipping finally into an angelic vision, is marked by a corresponding increase in shrieking and twitching until the queen’s grief and implied saintliness are barely detectable.

Amanda Lawrence stands out as the Fool and Old Woman. In these brief roles she brings laughter and interest where there was none, humanity where there was pomp and pathos where there was sentiment.

The play ends with Thomas Hurley’s sympathetic Cranmer prophesying the glorious reign of Elizabeth I – no doubt a patriotic moment for the original Jacobean audience but frankly meaningless now in its decorous enthusiasm.

Is the play a neglected masterpiece? Perhaps in a more intimate venue the subtleties and ironies, the plots and hypocrisies might glow a little, draw the audience in, and allow us to find out. But here the Globe gives us a great deal – three hours – of not a lot.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Henry VIII

  1. Captain Ned

    It can be easy enough to bring unjustly neglected plays into the limelight once more; what’s difficult is keeping them there. It seems to be easier to revive forgotten novels, which can be reprinted again and again if they’re successful. Plays live in performance; a rediscovered old play can have one brilliantly successful run, before being forgotten again (perhaps to be re-re-discovered in another few decades). The theatrical canon in this country is so rigid, so unhealthily dominated by Shakespeare, that it’s difficult for such plays to get a foothold even once their excellence is acknowledged. Every once in a while, you see British theatres undergoing a revivalist mini-trend, whether it be Jonson, or Spanish Golden Age Theatre, or German Romantic Drama, but they tend to fade away quite quickly.

    One my favourite plays is Jonson’s ‘Sejanus’. When the RSC put on a superb production a few years ago, I’d guess that the majority of the audience would have been unfamiliar with the text; even those who’d have read some of plays would have been likely to know only the comedies. Whenever I’ve seen it mentioned in literary histories or guides, it’s always described as a failure. ‘Sejanus’ was a flop when first performed, and the judgement seems to have stuck without ever being seriously questioned (it didn’t help that Eliot disparaged it). I was struck by some of the reviews, which praised the production for doing a good job with what was deemed (or assumed) to be a stiff, boring old text; perhaps I’m being unduly cynical in doubting whether many of these critics had read ‘Sejanus’, but I can’t help suspecting that more people have read Eliot’s essay than have read the play itself, and that it’s very easy just to rely on Eliot’s opinion. It didn’t seem to occur to many reviewers that the strength of the production may have been derived at least in part from the strengths of the text, and that even if posterity has condemned ‘Sejanus’, posterity isn’t always right.

    I was sure when reading ‘Sejanus’ that in the right hands it would make engaging, powerful theatre, and the RSC proved me right. In the same season, the company also put on Massinger’s ‘Believe As You List’ (which it retitled ‘Believe As You Will’), which I’d also read beforehand. This play had been even more neglected than ‘Sejanus’; the latter, being the work of a celebrated dramatist, was at least known to some people as a famous failure. ‘Believe As You List’, on the other hand, has long been considered one of the high points of Massinger’s oeuvre, but the writer himself has fallen into oblivion. As with ‘Sejanus’, I enjoyed reading it, but I wasn’t quite so sure that it would ‘live’ in performance. The RSC’s production wasn’t quite as good as its ‘Sejanus’, but it was good enough to demonstrate its stageworthiness. Both these plays are excellent (one of them is a masterpiece), and they deserve to be staged regularly. But it won’t happen. Every year, up and down the country, we get umpteen productions of ‘Hamlet’, of ‘Romeo and Juliet’, of ‘Macbeth’, of ‘The Tempest’. It’s hardly a bad thing that as great an artist as Shakespeare is familiar, but it’s a thin-line between familiarity and over-familiarity, especially when the over-familiar prevents the unfamiliar from becoming even moderately familiar. There’s been a vogue for Middleton in recent years, abetted by Gary Taylor’s collected edition, but it remains to be seen whether this will be a lasting phenomenon. It’s telling that Middleton has been loudly commended as ‘our other Shakespeare’ – basking in Will’s reflected glory, perhaps? Could he otherwise have shone at all?

  2. Hi Ned,

    I remember the Spanish Golden Age season. I don’t think the RSC were rewarded with high ticket sales for that, or the season where they ran a few lesser-known plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries as well as the newly-belaurelled Edward III. I remember, yeara ago, studying Richard Brome’s Antipodes and A Jovial Crew and thinking how much fun they could be. More so, Beaumont & Fletcher’s A King and No King blew me away, it was so theatrical – walking the tragi-comic tightrope brilliantly. It’s financially almost impossible to stage a lot of these plays, unfortunately.

    You mention Macbeth et al and I know that even companies known for producing Shakespeare feel they have to fall back on the same few plays again and again or tour, say, Romeo and Juliet to recoup the money lost producing a Cymbeline or Troilus and Cressida (both, coincidentally, produced by Cheek by Jowel in the last few years with mixed results). I’ve known of one production of King John in London in the last eight years or so, and one Timon of Athens at the Globe. Shakespeare’s popular canon is, I feel, far shorter than his Works.

    Thank you for the history of Sejanus. I had no idea about the Eliot seal of disapproval. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it, that one voice can condemn a work – or even a genre – for generations? I actually have a New Mermaid edition of Sejanus that I’ve never read but you’ve shamed me into picking it off the shelf.

    Hmmm, apparently it belonged to one Daryl Fraser in 1977. He’s filled the bloody thing with biro annotations.

  3. Captain Ned

    I do hate it when that happens. When I was a student, my university library mounted an exhibition of defaced books as a stern warning to anyone even THINKING of spoiling their precious volumes. One idiot had very neatly highlighted and underlined every single line on a double-page spread. How is that supposed to be an aid to study? Another plainly disturbed individual had cut slits into the pages with a knife. The Daryl Frasers of this world have a lot to answer for; it was a rare book that I borrowed which wasn’t marked in some way.

    You’re right about lesser-known plays losing money, I’m afraid. I suspect part of the problem may be that there’s a core of the regular audience willing to come back again and again to the same plays, regardless of how similar and unadventurous the productions may be. These same habitual theatregoers may see three or four Hamlets in a lifetime, but aren’t interested in going to see anything less familiar.

  4. Good to see you back, Baron C, with only friendly people about in this dead season in the Blogosphere.

    I enjoyed this post. Fashions in the arts seem ludicrous to me, since different styles/movements etc., are surely expressions of different aspects of the psyche. Why shouldn’t all aspects be expressed in parallel all the time?

    Reminds me of the part of my in which there was no mass-manufactured clothing or household furnishings. Everything had to be custom-designed, so you could be your own couturier if you didn’t simply want to wear copies of existing garments… All fabrics and colours were always available … It was hard, after that, to get used to the great ‘colour cycle’ in the west, in which manufacturers agree years in advance on what shades will be made available to the public. Lately, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, they’ve been bringing back those emetic combinations of lime green and orange and shocking pink from the psychedelic era.

  5. Joe Orton and Kenneth Halliwell were jailed for defacing library books. 6 months in jail.

    The irony being that Islingtion Library who got them put away held exhibitions of the defaced books ( utterly puerile but very funny at times ) once they realised that Orton was famous.

    As far asa I know they only altered the cover photos and the synopsis on the dusat jackets so not even on thje scale of the examples you mention.

  6. parallax

    hi, came to say hi again – I’ve nothing of note to add to Henry 8 play – but (given the deletions on the recent GU threads) just wanted to acknowledge your acknowledgement (fuck, this is so bizarre that it’s bizarre [avoids colon/bracket interface])

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