Written in collaboration with John Fletcher, Henry VIII is quite possibly Shakespeare’s final play – but, despite this country’s continued obsession with all things Tudor, it remains a rarely performed piece. Imagine the delight of Shakespeare completists everywhere when it was announced as part of the Globe’s 2022 summer season, this time in a slightly updated version that sees Hannah Khalil (Resident Writer) become the third collaborator; the original has a heavy male focus, thanks in part to the two (male) playwrights having to work around the expectations of the establishment to avoid censorship and arrest – but now 400 years have passed, it’s about time the female voices in this story were heard as well.
The plot of this play surrounds possibly the most catastrophic period in Henry VIII’s reign: his “great matter” and the consequent split from Rome. Initially, all seems well; Henry is a doting father to his only child, Mary, and a committed husband to Katharine of Aragon – noting the lack of a son, however, he begins to have his doubts about marrying his brother’s widow all those years ago. A chance encounter with Anne Bullen only fuels his desire to annul his marriage and embark on a new one, though efforts to do so within the bounds of the Catholic church (with Katharine fighting to the last) prove more difficult than he had first anticipated. With courtiers bickering and even his trusted advisor Cardinal Wolsey lining his own pocket, Henry takes matters into his own hands and creates the Church of England. But has he considered all of the repercussions..?
Though I know the history of this period very well, the only previous encounter I have had with this play is the excellent The Show Must Go Online version back in November 2020. From these two experiences, I can understand a bit better why the play isn’t often performed; it does tend to veer from one extreme to the other, going from bawdy to holy to bawdy in some places – plus there are some quite stark contrasts between the masques & big group scenes and a few lengthy introspective soliloquies. It can make it a slightly challenging watch, but I think Khalil (in conjunction with director Amy Hodge) has done a good job of balancing things out a bit more. Refocusing on the women is key – whether that’s giving Mary a voice or making the anonymous onlookers female rather than male – as it still tells the same story, but makes it far more relatable to a modern audience.
Georgia Lowe’s designs bring opulence to the usually understated Globe Theatre, with the stage bedecked in gold and the cast in a variety of sumptuous costumes. The attire is recognisably traditional, though with the odd modern twist – to me, this neatly reflects the new make-up of the writing ‘team’ and what this triumvirate brings to the table. The regal purple fits beautifully with the gilded surroundings, and allows for a bit of colour co-ordination amongst various factions of the court.
Much of Princess Mary’s input comes through song, allowing her to articulate her feelings with as much expressiveness as actor Natasha Cottriall can muster; music for the play comes from Tom Deering (co-composer, orchestrator & arranger) and Maimuna Memon (co-composer, songwriter & lyricist). It is a welcome addition, and sits well amongst the dialogue – this can sometimes be an issue in the outdoor space with the lack of amplification. The songs are a mixture of sonnets set to new music, and completely original numbers; though the song closing the first half (containing the line “unmannerly we women”) conveys the message the play wishes to get across, it is rather repetitive – so much so that I’d argue it doesn’t need a reprise right at the start of the second half, instead it should perhaps be left to the very end of the show (or just be reprised instrumentally as the second half begins).
Bea Segura and Janet Etuk play Henry VIII’s first two wives, Katharine and Anne, with incredible strength and poise; Segura holds the audience captivated as Katharine makes an impassioned plea to her husband to recognise their long & previously happy marriage, and Etuk’s Anne begins the play very sure of herself – though, following the birth of a daughter, you can see she knows she’s living on borrowed time. Jamie Ballard is a perfect fit as Cardinal Wolsey, able to depict his scheming nature with ease, as well as create real pathos as he begins his fall from grace.
It’s intriguing to have Wolsey’s greatest ally (Cromwell) and a fierce rival (Surrey) played by the same actor, and Esmonde Cole more than rises to the challenge of portraying two very different characters from one scene to the next. Adam Gillen has previously proven himself to be excellent at playing a petulant manchild, and this skill is put to good use here as he takes on the role of possibly the most iconic king in British history. His comic timing is immaculate, and there’s an underlying menace & bite to his performance that serves as a constant reminder of Henry’s unforgiving reputation.
This is a well overdue production of an elusive Shakespeare play, wisely reworking and adding to it in order to tell an important story.
My verdict? A female-focused production that tells you all you need to know about the titular king – the design & performances make it a wonder to behold.
Henry VIII runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 21 October 2022. Tickets are available online.