A wonderful play, written by Howard Brenton especially for the Globe and a beautifully judged mix of history, politics, religion, humour (sometimes bawdy and with filthy language) and backchat with the audience. Shakespeare would have loved it; indeed, he might have been pleased to have written it. All it lacked was the poetry, but modern writers don't do poetry, and Brenton compensated by filching lines from elsewhere (including Shakespeare) to make the whole thing sing. Even the claque of whooping American tourists couldn't spoil it, indeed just made it all the more entertaining.
This was the tale of Anne Boleyn, familiar from Shakespeare and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, complete with the closet protestant Thomas Cromwell (is there actually any historical evidence for that or is it all surmise?), the fat cardinal Wolsey and the rest; but it was also the tale of James I and VI and the process which led to the Authorised Version of the Bible, a tale which bracketed the Boleyn story and which may have been Brenton's starting point (a newspaper interview in January with the director, John Dove, a veteran new to us with a long career in Scotland and London, mentioned that his next project was a Brenton play about the King James Bible), and which meant that the second half was played around the supine body of a drunken James.
It's hard to know why the hairs on your neck stand up and your eyes prickle on some occasions and not on others, but they did tonight.
Miranda Raison's Anne had something to do with it. She came on at the start, beautiful and mischievous in a white shift and carrying a bag, asking: "Do you want to see it?" And we of course chorused "Yes" without quite knowing quite what it was. And it turned out to be her severed head.
But she was touching in her initial innocence, the love story with Henry was convincing, Wolsey was absurd in his ranting (my one reservation is that Colin Hurley as Wolsey and James Garnon as an epileptic James went way, way over the top, but the audience loved it and it didn't spoil one's enjoyment of the play's finer points) and she was suitably pitiable when Cromwell (a wonderful performance by John Dougall) the arch-revolutionary, her friend and co-conspirator, turned on her when it suited the revolution's purposes (she having failed to produce a male heir). One of the best lines was her riposte to one of the men (Wolsey, Cromwell) who accused her of witchcraft and wondered what she was that Katherine wasn't (answer: "fertile").
There was a lot of politics, a lot of religion and a lot of religion-as-politics. Some of the eye-prickling moments came when Anne, clandestinely meeting the protestant William Tyndale, joined in singing Martin Luther's hymn; and another when she and Cromwell recited Luther's evening prayer.
I liked too the scenes in which King James tackled the Anglican and Puritan tendencies in the church, seeking to reconcile them. He was a convincing practitioner of realpolitik, for all his epilepsy and foul mouth and tourette's-like behaviour and explicit carrying on with Buckingham. His preference for the Anglican interpretation of the Greek testament ("church" not "congregation": a congregation decide things for themselves, and where does that leave kings and their authority?) showed he was shrewd.
At the start James, arriving in London, is shown Anne's coronation dress ("there may be some interesting stains" he shrieks at one point: the Americans loved that) and finds in the chest in which it was stored a hidden compartment with her copies of Tyndale's translation of the New Testament and his The Obedience of a Christian Man (about the role of kings). At the beginning of part two he puts the dress on and dances provocatively with Buckingham. A clever combination of low comedy, almost burlesque, with quite meaty and challenging political stuff.
The cast was virtually the same as for Henry VIII, though Wolsey, Cromwell and Henry were all played by different actors (interestingly, we thought Henry in both was played by the same actor: we were wrong).
We ran into Brenton afterwards and I complimented him. He said he'd written for the space with some trepidation: but in my judgement he pitched it absolutely right.