By Howard Brenton
Directed by Rachel Tackley
Company: English Touring Theatre (based on the Shakespeare’s Globe production directed by John Dove)
Venue: Theatre Royal, Brighton
Date: Thursday 5th April 2012
There was a lot of overlap between this play and Written On The Heart, which we saw this winter in Stratford. Both concerned the writing of the King James Version of the Bible, but came at it from different angles. Written On The Heart looked in some detail at the wider historical context of the changes in religion at that time, plus the theological and political wrangling that went on, while Anne Boleyn focused on the lady herself, and the way in which her likely Protestantism and possible involvement with William Tyndale may have contributed to Henry’s change of heart and the secession from Rome. This was blended with a framing context of James’s succession to the English throne, and his use of the KJV as a way of bringing together the warring factions within the new Christianity. All of this with a lot of humour, plenty of lively action and tremendous performances.
The play started with some of the cast coming out and chatting with the audience, a much harder thing to do in a proscenium arch setting. In fact the whole performance suffered from being taken out of the Globe and thrust into a non-thrust environment. Apart from the stuffiness of the atmosphere in the Theatre Royal, the energy levels just weren’t up to the liveliness of the Globe, as far as the audience were concerned that is. The actors gave us plenty of oomph, and I suspect a 3D acting space would have made the performance even more enjoyable. Still, I’m glad they’re touring some of their work, as I think it deserves a wider audience.
Anne’s ghost then chatted to us for a bit, and her direct gaze and frank speech made her an attractive heroine for a modern audience. She introduced us to James, Sixth and First, before she left, and immediately we learned of his obsession with Elizabeth’s frocks. James Garnon played him as a very naughty schoolboy who just happens to be king, although his upbringing had made him shrewd as well as rude. He also had a stammer and a tendency to fart, and all in all it was an excellent performance.
The play then alternated between Anne’s story and James’s, with the bulk of the story being about Anne. We saw the beginning of King Henry’s seduction of Anne (or was it the other way round?), through the political attempts to have Henry’s marriage to Katherine annulled, to the final plot against Anne by Cromwell which led to her trial and execution. She also met William Tyndale a couple of times along the way, a speculative insertion by the author but not without foundation. James’s story started with his arrival in London, and combined his sexual romps with George Villiers with his determination to get agreement between the warring religious factions in England – the recently established Church of England, the puritans and the Catholics. Not an easy feat, given the intense hostility that existed between the groups, and so the idea of a new translation of the bible came along, a way of bringing the divided flock together. The play ended with a very drunk James seeing Anne’s ghost; he passed out from the drink leaving her to say her final lines to us, the demons of the future. It was a surprisingly upbeat ending to a very interesting and entertaining play.
All the performances were excellent; I’ve already mentioned James Garnon, and I will also mention Jo Herbert, who played Anne, and gave her all the liveliness, intelligence and passion the part required. But the ensemble worked brilliantly together, and only the deadening effect of the proscenium arch held my enjoyment back to the 7/10 level. I’d certainly see this again, especially if performed in a more suitable space.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me