Review: Henry VIII

It is a gloriously humid early evening in May with crystal clear blue skies.  Surely there could be no better back drop for The Globe’s opening night of Henry VIII, one of Shakespeare’s most sumptuous works.  But for all this production’s beautiful framework (both natural and Angela Davies’ lustrous setting) this King does not, in literature at least, live up to the renown of his predecessors.  For whilst Henry VIII contains flashes of Shakespeare’s celebrated genius, for the most part it is too solidly set in the commonplace to be truly great.

Assisted by that wily ‘Holy Fox’ Cardinal Wolsey (an awkwardly over-the-top Ian McNeice), and manipulated by his desire for the doe eyed Anne Boleyn, Henry seeks to divorce Queen Katherine.  Through a myriad of court machinations and intrigues, those closest to him jostle for power, sometimes to their fatal peril and a new Queen ascends. 

In the midst of these manipulations there are some poignant moments of human tragedy; the falling of the Duke of Buckingham (played with enormous authority by Anthony Howell) and the humiliating denigration of Queen Katherine.  There are also some titillating passages of humour and stage play in the form of, as ever, the Porters. 

The main meat of this text, however, is rather bland and the happy ending is unsatisfying.  The sight of a beaming monarch, only on his second wife and embracing his newborn girl as though he were happy about her sex, leaves a rather saccharine taste in the mouth; this Henry is all talk and no trousers.

But it cannot be said that Mark Rosenblatt’s sturdy production is simply a procession of vacuous pageants.  The political and domestic betrayals buried underneath the pomp are brought to the surface with enough delicate teases to succeed in piquing continued interest throughout this 3 hour show. 

From the moment Dominic Rowan bounds onto the stage mid-tennis match, Henry VIII the man of action is easy to behold, but he also succeeds in oozing a gentle sense of gravitas within this strangely childish monarch. Miranda Raison looks very pretty (she will have more to do when she plays the lead in Howard Brenton’s new play Anne Boleyn later in the season) and Kate Duchene brings a weighty magnificence to her role as the abandoned Queen.

But it is Amanda Lawrence who steals the sparkle in this otherwise solid show as both Anne’s wizened witty friend and the touching fool who begins and ends the proceedings with a mischievous twinkle.  Interestingly her superlative performance seems a double edged sword for whilst The Globe has once more excelled in producing a very satisfying show, such sporadic flashes of brilliance cannot help but highlight the rather pedestrian nature of this play.    

Anne Boleyn starts on July 24, and both it and Henry VIII continue until August 21

Originally written for Totally Theatre

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