It’s not every day that you get to hear a Shakespeare play (or at least a play partly by Shakespeare) for the first time. So a new production of the little-performed Henry VIII at Shakespeare’s Globe was always going to be a bit of a treat. Mark Rosenblatt’s production makes a virtue of its audience’s unfamiliarity with the play, his company tackling the tale with a rare sense of narrative clarity and vigour. Some of the drama’s diplomatic back-story is a bit dense (and had me ransacking my memories of Wolf Hall), but the action soon picks up pace as we get onto the more familiar territory of King Henry’s troublesome ‘conscience’.
Angela Davies cunningly sub-divides the stage (using nothing more sophisticated than some lengths of carpet) so that private spaces nestle precariously within the public arena of professional politicking. In the resulting Chinese-box of a court, the passionate rhetoric of a collapsing marriage spills from room to room in the manner of many a domestic row. And Rosenblatt exploits these spatial arrangements to choreograph cinematically-precise sequences of simultaneous action, uniting victor and victim within a single, exacting, narrative of historical necessity.
Round every corner lurks Ian McNeice’s Wolsey, a benevolent scarlet Vice of unbounded stomach, whose inordinate ability to run up expenses turns out to be his undoing. Dominic Rowan makes a powerful and [slider title=”charismatic Henry,”]
Dominc Rowan as Henry VIII at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo by John Tramper.
[/slider] torn between his (only marginally self-regarding) sense of kingly rectitude and Miranda Raison’s pensive Ann Bullen. But the real reasons to see this show are the gripping performances of Kate Duchêne and Amanda Lawrence.
Duchêne maps [slider title=”Queen Katherine’s”]
Kate Duchêne as Queen Katherine in Henry VIII at Shakespeare’s Globe. Photo by John Tramper.
[/slider] collapse from flirtatious self-confidence to inarticulate panic with assurance, capturing her unequal struggle to mask both fury and terror behind a pious facade of compliant wifeliness. Watching her agonised disintegration, it’s suddenly obvious what Sarah Siddons saw in the role. Lawrence meanwhile, balances this solemnity with a peevish (and sometimes frankly lewd) stream of alarmingly pertinent wittering, casting a jaundiced eye over the bartering of bodies and hearts.
As history demands, Henry gets his way, and his wife of choice (at least for the moment). The sumptuous finale is a riot of gold, with a tiny infant Elizabeth, amid a joyous clamour of choir-boys, provoking prophecies of glory for the realm. It’s a triumph of Jacobethan myth-making. And, what’s more, it’s an absolute triumph for the Globe.