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.