Theater Review: Take Two — Shakespeare Plays it Safe In “Henry VIII”

If “Henry VIII” is dramatically lacking when compared to Shakespeare’s other histories, what makes this production worthwhile is the care Actors’ Shakespeare Project has brought to staging it.

Henry VIII by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Directed by Tina Packer. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project. The Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, Boston, MA, through January 5.

By Ian Thal

Queen Katherine of Aragon (Tamara Hickey) and King Henry VIII (Allyn Burrows) in Actors' Shakespeare Project's "Henry VIII." Photo: Stratton McCrady.

Queen Katherine of Aragon (Tamara Hickey) and King Henry VIII (Allyn Burrows) in Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Henry VIII.” Photo: Stratton McCrady.

Given how infrequently Henry VIII is staged, it is easy to understand why few Shakespearians have addressed where the play fits into the canon. Is it a neglected play that has a new resonance today, such as revivals of Titus Andronicus have shown it to be over the past few years? (Perhaps because of the text’s resonance with how images of torture have permeated our post-modern culture through the films of Quentin Tarantino, TV’s 24, and photos from Abu Ghraib.) Or is it strangely prescient of the current avant garde, such as Timon of Athens? Or is it, like King John, an illuminating early take on the themes that concerned the Bard in his earlier, better known history plays?

Evidence points to Henry VIII being both Shakespeare’s final play– it certainly was the last play performed at the original Globe Theatre since a theatrical cannon misfired during an early performance and burnt the theater to the ground on June 29,1613 (it was rebuilt the following year) — as well as a collaboration with the younger John Fletcher, who would succeed the Bard as the house playwright of The King’s Men. Of course, critical consensus has generally found the work to be a less than crowning achievement of a final period that includes The Tempest. Detractors see it as devoted pomp and propaganda, essentially a confirmation of the continuity between the Tudor Henry VIII and the Stuart James II of England and VI of Scotland on the occasion of his daughter Elizabeth’s marriage to Frederick V of Palentine earlier that year.

Director Tina Packer, knowing well that the play is likely going to be unfamiliar to local audiences, has chosen a fairly straight-ahead approach. With the characters in Tudor costumes, there is no heavy-handed auteur gesture assert a parallel between the middle of the 16th century and our own. One of Shakespeare’s essential works? Taken alongside Shakespeare’s other plays it manages to shed some light on his world, but unlike those plays that are seen as more central to the canon, one does not catch here many of those lines of poetry that have become idiomatic expressions of the modern English language. Perhaps our politically cynical era is the wrong one for its revival, given its celebratory nature.

Even if the play is unfamiliar to most American theatre goers, one of its central conflicts is familiar to most of us: Henry the VIII (Allyn Burrows), wished a divorce from his wife, Queen Katherine of Aragon (Tamara Hickey) and, failing to receive an annulment from the Catholic Church, became a Protestant and proclaimed himself head of the Church of England, from which the Anglican Communion arose. The establishment of the later initiating a series of armed conflicts between Catholic and Protestant in the British Isles until the Good Friday Accords were signed in the final years of the 20th century.

The other story is that of Cardinal Wolsey’s (Robert Walsh) fall from grace from his role as both Henry’s Lord Chancellor and the Roman Catholic Church’s representative in England, as both political intrigue amongst the nobles and Henry’s newly found Protestantism leads to the Cardinal’s downfall.

Unlike Shakespeare’s better-known history plays, this collaboration with Fletcher feels less like a coherent drama and more like a sequence of events and, despite Packer’s best efforts, most of the dramatic grist comes from our knowledge of how the thematic material may have been spun differently (and with more complexity) in Shakespeare’s other plays. We see an echo of the Capulet party from Romeo and Juliet as Henry and entourage show up, masked, at a banquet hosted by Cardinal Wolsey, during which the King becomes smitten with Anne Boleyn (Kathyrn Myles).

Packer provides some through-line to the sequence of events by compositing several minor characters (including the speaker of the prologue) into a Fool (Bobbie Steinbach). In her program notes, Packer points out that there was a Jane Foole attached to the court at the time. The historical Jane Foole, one of the few documented female court jesters, was known to be the jester for Catherine Parr, the last of Henry’s six wives, as well as Queen Mary (Mary also employed a Lucretia the Tumbler); she is believed to have been Anne Boleyn’s jester as well. This directorial decision places Steinbach on stage in almost every scene, and puts the clown in the time-honored position of being more than just “comic-relief” but a representative ‘everyman’ commenting on a pageant of aristocrats doing aristocratic things. Steinbach, of course, is a terrific clown, and her performance is one of the most entertaining aspects of this production, whether it is with her mock self-inflicted crucifixion, or her use of the fool’s bauble or marotte (designed by Cynthia Good) in much the same way that a good Harlequin uses the slapstick, or batacchio: not just as a mock scepter, but as a weapon, any number of practical tools, and, of course, as a phallus — clowns, by their polymorphous nature, must be ready to simulate any class or gender the situation demands.

Unfortunately, because Shakespeare and Fletcher chose to play it safe in the composition of Henry VIII (possibly because the conflicts were recent enough so that the 17th century audience members — including King James — might still have harbored strongly divisive views regarding Henry’s reign) there is very little complicated dramatic material for the actors to grapple with. Henry is aloof and gets what he wants in fairly uninteresting ways. At least in Burrow’s interpretation, his supposed crisis of conscience (that marrying Katherine of Aragon, his brother’s widow, might be incest) comes across as a contrivance in his suit to annul his marriage. In order not to risk insulting either Henry or Anne Boleyn, parents of Elizabeth I, the Bard and his collaborator conveniently avoid mention of the next four wives of Henry VIII– it is only in an unscripted gesture by Myles that Boleyn’s fate as yet another victim in Henry’s failed quest for a male heir is briefly acknowledged.

Even the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism is handled with a light touch. There is neither a crisis of faith, nor a conflict between faiths, as portrayed in The Merchant of Venice — which is striking, since both anti-Catholic and anti-Protestant polemics of the era routinely likened the other denomination to Jews. Shakespeare, of course, came from a Catholic family, (though his sister Judith is believed by some scholars to be a Puritan) but in all likelihood he identified more strongly as an Englishman than as a Christian.

If there is a theme that runs through all of the history plays, it is that what is good for England is to be strong and unified under a monarch who is in control of his faculties and the various factions of society. This nationalistic vision trumps any specific theological outlook: Any possible criticism that Henry might have initiated a period of religious conflict and disharmony on British soil is off the table for Shakespeare or Fletcher.

A scene from the Actors' Shakespeare Project's "Henry VIII."

A scene from the Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s “Henry VIII” featuring Kathryn Myles as Anne Boleyn and Bobbie Steinbach as The Fool. Photo: Stratton McCrady.

Consequently, only a few characters have more that walk-on parts. Robert Walsh portrays Wolsey’s conflicting drives to serve his king and to exercise his ecclesiastical authority. The latter includes ensuring that the examination of the legality of Henry’s marriage to Katherine proceeds under a scholastic equivalent of due process. Of course this also aids his pursuit of temporal power (or perhaps more sympathetically, his pursuit of temporal power makes him a better servant of both the the Papal and English thrones, at least until the two come into conflict.) By contrast, Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer (Ross MacDonald, in but one of many roles) is virtuous not because of his Protestantism, but because of his willingness to be the king’s toady. Hickey delivers Katherine’s speeches with all the tragedy inherent in the story of a loyal wife and queen (she gives Henry wise consul on affairs of state in one scene) whose honor and life is sacrificed for the sake of her husband’s ambitions. Myles’ Boleyn is similarly conflicted as one of Katherine’s entourage. Unfortunately, the other roles give very little for the rest of the cast to work with, though Craig Mathers brings his customary intelligence to the supporting role of Cardinal Campeius.

By the end of act IV, Wosley and Katherine are conveniently dispensed with and Anne crowned, so there is little significant dramatic conflict left. Packer, in her notes, likens the play’s procession of events to the court masques that nobles and royalty produced to entertain themselves. Shakespeare most effectively and memorably appropriated the masque, a genre marked more by allegory and spectacle than by a recounting of historical events, in act IV of The Tempest. Only two scenes here resemble a masque: the staging of Katherine’s death (a mime-inspired funeral procession choreographed by Susan Dibble, aided by video projection by lighting designer Daniel H. Jentzin); and the epilogue, which is equal parts birth announcement and prophecy of the reign of the future Queen Elizabeth I and her presumed reincarnation as James’ daughter, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia.

If Henry VIII is dramatically lacking when compared to Shakespeare’s other histories, what makes this production worthwhile is the care Actors Shakespeare Project has brought to staging it. Besides the excellent cast, Packer has assembled a capable team of designers. Dibble’s choreography not only gives Katherine’s funeral its mournful power, but brings some real joy to the banquet scene, where she takes some inspiration from folk dance. Tyler Kinney’s costume designs exhibit his customary attention to historical templates, and a particularly strong sense of color and pattern. His millinery work is especially eye catching, and among the colorful cloaks, tunics, and gowns the only real let down is Cardinal Campeius’ robes and skull cap, which are very obviously made of cheaper material than Cardinal Wolsey’s costume, even if they sport a similar cut.

Still, even the lesser parts of the Shakespearian canon are Shakespeare, and revivals of minor plays give devoted fans an opportunity to reflect on the themes that run though all his works.

Fuse Critic Bill Marx on ASP’s Henry VIII

Ian Thal is a performer and theatre educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere, and on occasion served on productions as a puppetry choreographer or dramaturg. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is currently working on his second full length play; his first, though as-of-yet unproduced, was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. Formally the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report

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