Michael Bertenshaw, Sam Cox, John Cummins, Ben Deery, Mary Doherty, John Dougall, Kate Duchne, Will Featherstone, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Anthony Howell, Colin Hurley, Amanda Lawrence, Ian McNeice, Miranda Raison, Dominic Rowan, Dickon Tyrrell
Henry VIII, or All is True as it was originally titled, is perhaps Shakespeare’s least-known and most seldom-performed play. It’s hardly surprising given its static and wordy nature and the Globe’s new production is sure to test the groundlings to the utmost.
There’s no potential for bucket of piss gags and the opportunities for crowd-pleasing spectacle are actually surprisingly few. The Field of the Cloth of Gold has already taken place before the play begins and we’re left with Anne Bullen’s coronation and Elizabeth’s christening for Charles Kean-like pageantry, which Mark Rosenblatt’s production only hints at.
The early scene, where a masked Henry, a nod in the direction of old-style Shakespearean artifice, invades a dance and begins his seduction of Anne (Miranda Raison), provides another flurry of colour and movement amidst an ocean of verbalising.
But for the serious Shakespeare admirer there’s plenty of interest, as his style seems to have been moving in a new direction at this final creative fling before the Globe famously burned down during Act 1 Scene 4 in 1613 and the playwright retired to Stratford to die a few years later.
The play was put together with the arguably lesser writer John Fletcher and while it may appear little more than a stringing together of episodes from the early history of the king, hinging around the end of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and taking up with the fecund young beauty who became his second queen, there’s a good deal of subtlety in the political machinations.
Cardinal Wolsey’s fall from grace and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, coming under fire from an unsteady coalition of ministers, are vividly portrayed. Ironically, the Globe’s conditions facilitate against the more finely-drawn aspects of the play, the need to belt out the lines often obscuring Shakespeare at his most televisual.
Particular victims of this are Kate Duchne’s shrewish Katherine, whose touching death scene is blasted out like a barrage of cannon and Ian McNeice’s roly-poly Wolsey, which never quite registers as it should.
Director Mark Rosenblatt and his cast, led by a sterling Dominic Rowan as a virile king, have a pretty good shot at getting the plot across and a strength of the production is a no-gimmicks approach that plays the game with a pretty straight racquet.
Rosenblatt slightly hampers some of his actors with heavy accents – Katherine’s spicy Spanish and tuttsi-fruttsi Italian from the visiting Cardinals – which makes the difficult text even more impenetrable.
Gripes aside, this is a valiant effort, with strong performances, offering more than just a rare opportunity for Shakespeare completists. Fortunately, we’ve been brought up on a diet of screen treatments of Henry VIII’s tempestuous reign, so much of the biographical detail is familiar. Still, some advance homework wouldn’t go amiss and a little more effort than is usually required at the Globe will be rewarded.