12/7/10, Shakespeare's Globe
3 hrs. Rarely-performed Shakespeare... and there's a reason for that. It's not a very good play, one of his last, written with John Fletcher. Henry himself (Dominic Rowan, confident and engaging) is something of a cipher; the dramatic interest is spread too widely and too thinly across a number of central characters; the action is episodic without much in the way of a satisfying narrative arc. There seem no very good reasons why the play should start and end where it does other than political convenience: Shakespeare might have made a spectacular tragedy out of a play which included Henry's later years, but instead contented himself with a piece of tame political propaganda in which Henry is remembered chiefly as the father of the Virgin Queen, whose christening concludes the play, and (obliquely) as the father of the reformed church of England.
The best bits (in this production at any rate) were the scenes involving Katherine of Aragon (Kate Duchene) who was genuinely moving in her trial scene and near-death scene despite what A thought was a dodgy accent (Czech masquerading as Spanish): in the latter she embodied pale and pain-wracked desperation to perfection. She may have been hamming it up but the Globe is a space that can take and absorb any amount of ham.
Ian McNeice, he of the ever-wobblier jowls, was Wolsey and looked the part but didn't quite bring it off (insufficiently clear diction for one thing, as evidenced by the ease with which one of the other characters wittily parodied him at one point) so that his soliloquy about he vanity of earthly things after his downfall wasn't especially moving. And Colin Hurley, who was fine in the comic part of second citizen, lacked the heft and dignity for Cranmer, whose closing speech prophesying a glorious future for the infant Elizabeth, which should have been inspiring or at least gripping, had 'em shuffling and coughing.
Miranda Raison (who is in Spooks, apparently) looked suitably stunning as Anne Boleyn/Bullen, with the help of a great deal of make up, and caught the character's ambiguous nature nicely: she claims she can't be bought, even with the title of Queen, and then collapses instantly when told she's been made a Marchioness; she finds the masked Henry's amorous advances in the masque scene tiresome in the extreme and then (because she's worked out who he is???) suddenly flings herself at him; and generally comes across as a scheming little minx though the part as written implies the virtuous mother of a future monarch.
Amanda Lawrence from Kneehigh as the prologue/epilogue and the Welsh lady-in-waiting Virginia (to Anne's "I swear again, I would not be a queen for all the world..." replies "I would for Carnarvonshire") was as always excellent, but was also required to play Henry's fool, a near silent part with a puppet, which seemed a bit pointless.
The director Mark Rosenblatt (new to us) chose to stage the play as spectacle, which he chose to show us even when the text merely described it. There were several dramatic entrances for the king and for the pair of cardinals, the masque, and especially Anne's coronation procession and Elizabeth's christening complete with golden robes and singing choirboys and a golden canopy held up by serving men which entered or exited through the crowd. There were also some nice touches, including scenes which started centre stage before the characters disappeared through the door at the back, stll speaking (and in one case leaving a gaggle of eavesdropping ladies in waiting) to reappear through one of the side doors and continue the conversation round the front of the stage.
There was also a forestage, which would not have been there in Shakespeare's day, which made staging the processions easier but hearing more difficult: if an actor turns his back on the audience on the main stage there's a great big wooden wall to bounce his words back to us, but if he does it on the forestage the words just disappear. Worse than the Olivier.
The crowd included many tourists; A, who'd booked later and sat a little away from us, said that all four people on either side of her left at the half; the American next to me spend the whole of the first half thumbing through his programme. Someone should have warned them this isn't classic Shakespeare.
As Wolsey says at one point: "Worth the seeing", though not perhaps more than once.