With an abundance of Hamlets, Macbeths and Romeo And Juliets staged year round, it is a welcome treat to see a Shakespeare play unfold before your eyes without knowing the – most likely tragic – end that is to come.
For many, Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of Henry VIII will be such a treat. Rarely performed, the history play is a politically intriguing drama known for its spectacular, grand staging and use of pyrotechnics that didn’t turn out so spectacularly in 1613 when the thatched roof of the original Globe burnt down.
Mark Rosenblatt’s staging is slightly less indulgent, with no such explosions or grandeur. Instead, the characters are allowed the audience’s full attention, albeit on designer Angela Davies’s imposing set, where red carpets, vast pillars and gold banners put the action very much in a place fit for a king, and lavish, richly-coloured costumes reflect the monarch’s almost holy standing in society.
A serious Dominic Rowan, who portrays power and allure with ease, plays the monarch in question. With the Tudor court locked in a battle between the council, the King’s former confidant Lord Buckingham and Cardinal Wolsey, the King finds himself distracted by the charms of the now notorious Anne Boleyn. But when the King’s current wife, Queen Katherine, begs for his favour and his continued commitment, the country’s long-term relationship with the Catholic Church is threatened by the couple’s imminent divorce.
Wolsey (Ian McNeice) is a direct contrast to the suave King. Strict and conniving, his plump stature and beady eyes serve to create a clichéd, corrupt and ultimately weak priest, whose desires are pathetically transparent. Henry VIII is in fact a play where the women shine and unashamedly steal the show. Kate Duchêne’s portrayal of Queen Katherine is both strong and intelligent. Taking the Queen from elegance and wealth to pleading for her rightful place in court, Duchêne then magnificently transforms into a pained, dying woman, able to forgive and see clearly – as only she does – the people who are truly wronged. Throughout the play, Shakespeare shows her to be a woman of true power and substance, and her presence rules the stage.
In contrast, Anne Boleyn is vapid and undeveloped, simply a pretty face for the King’s enjoyment, one moment declaring she would not be queen for all the riches in heaven, the next happily cosying up to the King with no sense of guilt or irony.
Though Henry VIII is a commonly unknown play, as the action unfolds it is clear that the satisfaction of watching it lies in knowing what comes next. The audience knows the ultimate fates of characters like Thomas Cromwell, Anne Boleyn and her child Elizabeth, because the play acts as a prequel to the history we now all know unfolded after the spectacular days of Henry VIII and his politically dubious court.