As the continuation of an already excellent season, the Globes latest offering is a mordantly playful look at the history of Henry VIIIs second queen, with playwright Howard Brenton on blistering form.
James Garnon gives a brilliant performance as James the Sixth of Scotland (and First of England) and his approach points to the success of the entire play. His twitching, neurotic king is hilarious but its effectiveness lies in the fact that his intention is always serious.
His throbbingly intense through-line, layered with wit and rigour, reflects that of Brentons play as a whole.
Earlier in the season, Miranda Raisons Anne Boleyn in Shakespeares Henry VIII showed us that shes beautiful but had the opportunity for little more. Now the characterisation has blossomed: Brentons creation (and with so little historical certainty, thats what it is) is not the scheming sexual predator or hapless victim but a forger of the new, a brave pioneer putting her safety on the line to facilitate religious reform. Brentons admiration for her is clear and Raison pitches it perfectly.
Anne is not averse to dismissing her rival, the outgoing Katherine of Aragon, as a bitch or cow (colloquialisms abound), and shes steadfast in her ambition to marry the king, but in her defiance of the Catholic norm and dangerous liaison with the Lutheran reformer William Tyndale, she shows courage and daring, raising her to a heroic level.
So, why James VI/I in a play titled Anne Boleyn? After a brief flirtation between Annes ghost (head in bloodied bag) and the audience, Brenton leaps some 70 years to the edgy court of James I, where Garnons king cavorts, collapses and snogs with gay abandon. The play then alternates between the two periods for the rest of the evening.
Like Anne and Thomas Cromwell, the later monarch is seduced by the supposed heresy of Tyndales writing. Brentons intention seems to be to show the far-reaching effect of Annes brief reign as consort, centring on her championing of Tyndale, who was to be a major source for James subsequent translation of the bible, the influence of which has resounded down through the centuries to the present day.
John Doves superb production, brilliantly paced and picking up on every gift Brenton gives him, bristles with great performances. John Dougall is a forthright, cruel and ultimately treacherous Cromwell, who leads Anne down a dangerous path and snaps her off when his own security is threatened.
Amanda Lawrences spindly Lady Rochford is beautifully depicted, constantly betraying her friend out of sheer fear and the craving to remain alive and Anthony Howells King Henry, easily persuaded whenever his self-interest is evoked, is equally compelling. Colin Hurley is a persuasive Wolsey (more so than his counterpart in Henry VIII) and Peter Hamilton Dyer an interestingly rustic Tyndale.
There are a few structural wobbles in Brentons play but the language is sinuous and incisive, poetic and bold. It succeeds brilliantly in entertaining and provoking thought, giving a thoroughly modern take on a tale familiar from countless and diverse re-tellings. He gives us a play that resonates wonderfully in both the Globes unique space and in our heads.