It is not often that one gets to see a professional production of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher's play Henry VIII. It is even rarer to have the opportunity to see two productions that take different approaches to the material in the past three theatrical seasons. The first was the Folger Theater production in the fall of 2010, which added characters and colored the ending with a touch of historical reality. The American Shakespeare Center's approach, as part of its Actors' Renaissance Season, is much more traditional, showcasing the drama and pageantry in a manner that gives the audience a staging that is true to the material.
As a history play, Henry VIII is really a history pageant. The drama is more of a greatest hits of 1521-1533, with a couple of additions from the later years of King Henry VIII's reign that bring closure to the theatrical story. It is filled with vignettes that would have been well known to the Jacobean audience and is particularly flattering to the late Queen Elizabeth I whose death brought the current King James VI and I to the throne. The script can be challenging with its various members of the court. The downfall and subsequent demise of several characters can be confusing as they occur with very little dramatic set-up.
This production is simply delightful. The company of actors makes the story so clear that a novice with no knowledge of the life and times of King Henry VIII could easily follow the story. Costuming themselves with items from the costuming stock, most of the pieces are Tudor/Elizabethan and a crown or jeweled badge of office assist in helping the audience keep track of who is noble, who is peasant and who is a member of the clergy.
Henry VIII begins with the arrest of the Duke of Buckingham, accused of treason for wanting the throne for himself. His demise has been orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey who corruptly attempts to rule the kingdom and control King Henry. Henry is long married to Queen Katherine of Aragon, but her many pregnancies have left the king without a male heir. At a party at Cardinal Wolsey's the king arrives in disguise and becomes enchanted with Anne Bullen. Desiring Anne, he soon makes her Marchioness of Pembroke.
The king's conscience is troubled by the fact that he married his brother's widow. Sending to Rome for judgment Cardinal Campeius arrives to judge the king's divorce proceedings along with Cardinal Wolsey. Queen Katherine gives an impassioned speech directly to her husband and invokes the right to appeal to Rome. Cardinal Wolsey's enemies use his failure to show the king that Wolsey is corrupt. Wolsey is stripped of his offices and soon dies.
Meanwhile Thomas Cranmer is appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and grants the king his divorce. In the midst of the splendid pageantry of Anne Bullen's coronation, plots are hatched against Cranmer accusing him of heresy. The aftermath leads to King Henry asserting total command of his noble councilors. Henry awaits the birth of his hoped for heir.
Several of the company portray multiple roles. Gregory Jon Phelps with little stage time manages to give great pathos to the fallen Duke of Buckingham and then returns as Buckingham's son-in-law the Earl of Surrey filled with rage, desiring justice against Cardinal Wolsey. Abby Hawk is forceful as the Duke of Suffolk, a councilor praying for Wolsey's fall. With a clear voice she musically soothes the exiled Queen Katherine particularly when Katherine dreams of a heavenly reward.
Allison Glenzer provides her usual comic flair as the lascivious Old Lady counseling Anne Bullen to accept the great wealth and titles that come with the king's desire. Yet, it is her ardent devotion as Wolsey's loyal servant, Thomas Cromwell that will bring a tear to your eye even as the corrupt Wolsey gets his comeuppance. As Wolsey, John Harrell is not the twirling, obvious villain of some productions of this play. He uses words to create a smooth-talking villain who subtly manipulates king and country to maintain his power. When Wolsey falls, in Mr. Harrell's hands Wolsey gains the audience's sympathy.
There are three characters who are written in a very saintly manner. The first is Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Ronald Peet is a gentle, honest Cranmer who genuinely does not know how to dissemble in front of his determined enemy, Grant Davis' Bishop Gardiner. The second is Tracie Thomason's Anne Bullen. Shakespeare and Fletcher's Anne is not the calculating schemer like that of recent fictional depictions of Anne Bullen. This Anne is genuinely shocked by her royal suitor's favor and remains mournful of the downfall of her mistress Queen Katherine. Both characters could be bland in the wrong hands, yet with their mastery of the script, Mr. Peet and Ms. Thomason create characters that matter to the story.
The most saintly character is also the most riveting portrayal on the Blackfriar's stage. Sarah Fallon takes Katherine of Aragon and makes the audience greatly saddened by her treatment in the divorce proceedings and her subsequent exile. Ms. Fallon's delivery of Queen Katherine's famous speech during the divorce proceedings is humble, yet forceful. For this production it was decided to have Ms. Fallon deliver the prologue and epilogue that frame the drama. This is inspired as it gives a particular pathos to the entire play, as the words of the prologue and epilogue genuinely seem geared to the feminine perspective.
And as for King Henry VIII himself? The role is not the leading part, yet the specter of the king is ever present throughout the entire play. It calls for an actor who can command the stage when he appears. Benjamin Curns does that with charm, menace, and charisma as his King Henry grows from the young king willing to allow Wolsey to rule for him to a true absolute monarch by the end of the play.
Henry VIII by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher is being performed at the American Shakespeare Center as part of the Actor's Renaissance Season. During the season, there are no directors or designers and rehearsals are in a matter of days. Henry VIII is being performed in repertory with William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare and John Fletcher's The Two Noble Kinsmen, William Wycherley's The Country Wife and John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The Custom of the Country through April 5, 2013. For tickets and other performance information please visit www.americanshakespearecenter.com.