Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Henry VIII at the Folger Theatre

King Henry VIII is arguably the most recognized male monarch of the British Isles.   2009 marked the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII's accession to the throne at the age of 17.    In commemoration of this anniversary an explosion of books, television programs, films and exhibitions have appeared in the past couple of years.    An American exhibition Vivat Rex! was jointly mounted by The Grolier Club in New York City  (March 4-May 2, 2009) and at the Folger Shakespeare Library (September 18 - December 31, 2010).    In conjunction with the exhibition, the Folger Theatre is mounting a production of William Shakespeare's Henry VIII in their Elizabethan Theatre.

Henry VIII is one of the last, if not the last play that William Shakespeare wrote.   It is believed by many scholars that Shakespeare collaborated on the writing of the play with John Fletcher.    The play is definitely from the Jacobean era as there is much emphasis on masque-like pageantry.   This is a play of epic proportions covering events in the King's life over a period of about 13 years (with a few later events sandwiched in to the narrative).    The play contains no fewer than 39 speaking roles.     It provides a great challenge to any theater company attempting to mount a production.    Can the human characters emerge from the spectacle? Or is this play doomed to be a footnote, forever a marginal note in a list of Shakespeare's works.

The Folger Theatre has created a tight ensemble of only eleven actors to mount this work.  The director, Robert Richmond, has judiciously trimmed the script and turned the focus of the work on the characters themselves.    The marquee events which are grand pageantry such as the divorce trial of King Henry and Queen Katherine of Aragon and the baptism of Princess Elizabeth are intact.    However, by stripping away the spectacle, Mr. Richmond has allowed his talented cast to bring Henry VIII's court to vibrant life.

The set design by Tony Cisek has truly transformed the theater.    Using ornate metal work, Mr. Cisek has created both grandeur in the details, as well as the treachery of the King's court.   Passageways evoke the ease of eavesdropping on one's enemies and serve as prison or confessional.    Above the center of the stage a large round balcony is reminiscent of both a crown, providing a "cloth of estate" for the throne and with its dagger-like ornamentation the constant danger of holding or serving said throne.

Award-winning costume designer, William Ivey Long has created stunningly beautiful costumes.   While they are not strictly accurate to the time period, nonetheless they assist with demonstrating the opulence inherit in the Renaissance court.

Ian Merrill Peakes is a charismatic King Henry VIII.    He is suitably handsome and commanding, bringing forth Henry's desire for control of his kingdom and his destiny.    Naomi Jacobson is beyond sympathetic as Queen Katherine.    She journeys through the play from wise and trusted counselor during the treason trial of the Duke of Buckingham that opens the play to a bewildered, betrayed wife during her own marriage trial. Anthony Cochrane brings a cold, calculating inner strength to Cardinal Wolsey, yet, when he in turn falls from grace, the audience will find a sliver of sympathy to this fallen man of ambition.    Karen Peakes makes Anne Boleyn more than just a pretty face.   The role is very generously written, albeit a relatively small part, after all one does not write ill of Queen Elizabeth's mother during the reign of Elizabeth's successor.   Yet between Ms. Peakes' performance and Mr. Richmond's direction, this Anne Boleyn becomes ensnared in her rise to Queen of England and sees how uneasy her position becomes when she does not produce the sought after male heir to the throne.

Kudos to the director for noting the absurdity of the ending of the play, which is an homage to the greatness of the future Queen Elizabeth.    In truth, her birth was a great disappointment and Mr. Richmond has directed his actors to foreshadow that her birth is not the grand event that Archbishop Cranmer makes it out to be.

Mr. Richmond has created two characters for this production not found in Shakespeare's original text.   The first is Princess Mary, portrayed by Megan Steigerwald.     This character is a non-speaking reminder that Henry and Katherine had a daughter who was bastardized by the King's divorce from her mother.    While the character doesn't not always work in the beginning of the evening, by the end, when she appears in the background listening to her father praise her baby sister as the only great progeny he has produced on this earth her presence brings a poignancy to the evening.

The other character created for the piece is the King's fool, Will Sommers, portrayed by Louis Burtelli.  This decision solves the problem of the recitation of the prologue and the fool plays many of the minor speaking roles.   It is as if the fool is telling the audience the story.    The conceit mostly is effective, but the use of puppets to illustrate some of the events in the story does not always work.    It is however a bold and ambitious concept.

This is a rare opportunity to see a very good production of this seldom produced Shakespeare play.

Henry VIII will be performed by the Folger Theatre until November 28, 2010.  For tickets and additional performance information please visit

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