Review – Anne Boleyn

May 9 2012 | By More

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Will Featherstone, Holly Morgan, John Cummins, David Sturzaker, Jo Herbert, Claire Bond, Mary Doherty Anne Boleyn Globe Theatre

Will Featherstone, Holly Morgan, John Cummins, David Sturzaker, Jo Herbert, Claire Bond, Mary Doherty Anne Boleyn Globe Theatre

Festival Theatre
Review by Thom Dibdin

The Globe Theatre comes stomping over the border for an audacious final date of its UK tour of the smash hit Anne Boleyn.

In Howard Brenton’s big, pugnacious script, the ascent of Anne Boleyn into the court of Henry 8th is painted with strokes so bold that the effects of her astute politicking are seen to colour the actions of James IV and I, some 70 years after her beheading.

This is historical drama with an unabashed political edge – but handsomely entertaining with it.

James, it seems, is the key to understanding Anne. Indeed, it is through his eyes as he arrives in London to take on the English crown that Anne’s contemporaneous influence is seen. And the action slips easily back and forth between their two courts, illuminating the powerful manipulations of those around them and their own influence on key points in history.

This feels doubly bold. First for the sheer guts of a theatrical production which can inhabit the Festival Theatre’s huge auditorium – and indeed can attract an audience to fill it. Too often attempts to stage straight drama here have gone missing in action.

Then there is the delicious irony of a production, created for the London stage, which breaks its fourth wall to place its audience in the English court. But played out in the city from where James left to unite the Britain under his rule.

Under the direction of John Dove, whose work is regularly seen at the Royal Lyceum, this zings along with great pace. It’s not all flourish, however, as he brings an understanding of the greater picture than that simply shown on the stage.

Jo Herbert gives an impressively rounded performance as Anne Boleyn. From the comedy of the opening scene, appearing as a ghost with a teasingly bloodied bag that she waves around taunting the audience, to the tragedy her final moments, pleading for her life, Herbert’s Anne is an eminently human and fascinating creation.

David Sturzaker’s Henry is not the pompous oaf of school history lessons – having to be lifted by crane onto his horse – but a lithe youthful man. He’s aware of his power and quite capable of using it but when it comes to the analysis and Machiavellian instinct required in court, it is Anne who is his superior.

A triumph in the way it brings the drama of history to life

With a 19-strong cast there is plenty of space to create that court. Cardinal Wolsey (Colin Hurley) who constantly tried to thwart Anne’s ambitions, Thomas Cromwell (Julius D’Silva) whose own ambitions were masked by a vicious but chameleon personality and the heretical translator of the bible William Tyndale (Tim Frances) – not part of the court but a key element of the unfolding drama.

And there lies the real heart of Brenton’s play: The bible and its translation. The bible as political tool. Tyndale’s pamphlets being used by Anne to instil in Henry the idea of a break from Rome and the establishment of a new Church of England.

Which is why James becomes so important. It was of course his version, the King James Bible, which became pervasive, ensuring he rivals Shakespeare in providing the most influential element in the creation of our language. And Brenton makes the creation of that bible the mirror political machination in James’ court.

What a gaudy, complex creation James Garnon makes of James. Flashy, lecherous, favouring young men in court and his well-read understanding masked by a purposefully uncouth appearance. The latter helped by an affliction of twitching and grimacing.

He could so easily be a caricature, but Garnon makes him bright and calculating, an aesthete with a taste for politics who easily earns his epithet, the wisest fool in Christendom. He might look like a small boy playing with toy soldiers when he manipulates with his own court, but Garnon makes it clear that every action is carefully calculated.

This is a triumph in the way it brings the drama of history to life. Of course there is an angle to it – much is skated over, ignored, put in a light that the serious historian might dispute or blatantly changed. But for understanding of motivation and the roots of our contemporary lives this is fine, fine stuff.

Not forgetting the eternal question to religious zealots of every age, asked by James in the final scenes: “Why is what we do in the name of God exactly what we need to do in our own self-interest?”

Run ends Saturday 12 May 2012
Running time 2 hours 45 minutes

Shows daily 7.30pm; matinees Wed and Sat: 2.30pm.

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Comments (2)

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  1. hannah says:

    I hate to have to point this out, but it’s James, not Anne, who asks that question in the final scenes. Anne is shown as far too religiously committed to come out with something like that – she’s the one who sees herself as a potential instrument of God on Earth.

  2. Thom Dibdin says:

    Thank-you for pointing that out. You are quite right – in all respects – and I have now amended.