Anne Boleyn – April 2012


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

Never So Good – July 2008


By Howard Brenton

Directed by Howard Davies

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Wednesday 30th July 2008

I found this a bit disappointing, given the good reviews it’s had. The queue for returns was certainly long enough. But even so, I did enjoy a lot of this performance. In fact it was the performances that made it for me – the writing seemed lacklustre at times, while the staging had a few high spots and a greater number of low ones. I was finding the heat difficult today, I must admit, but as I found the opening line funny, I don’t think my state of mind was the problem.

There were four acts, covering major periods of MacMillan’s life. The first took us up to his final wounding in WWI, and introduced us to his mother and the chap who was his best friend, until that friend decided to convert to Catholicism. This section may also have been meant to show us how MacMillan related to the sufferings of the working-class soldiers, but the writing was rather clunky in this area, and we get characters making comments about his attitude rather than letting us see it for ourselves. My main impressions from this section are that he’s a homosexual who never comes out of the closet, and who doesn’t really have any ambition for himself, so his incredibly pushy mother can mould him to suit her wishes. She wants a son who’s a big cheese in the political world, hence her insistence that Harold give up any idea of converting to Catholicism himself as it would make it impossible for him to hold high office.

Jeremy Irons is playing the older MacMillan throughout, but there’s a younger version we get to see a lot of, and in this early part, he’s doing most of the action while the older version dodders about the stage commenting on events. The younger version manages to survive the battle, despite lying in a foxhole for eight hours with no medical attention other than a shot of morphine. He’s psychologically damaged, however, and the exchange between the two MacMillans at this point makes it clear that his younger self is like a ghost haunting him, a conscience who keeps reminding him that he once had great ideals and has failed to achieve anything to justify them. Survivor’s guilt was mentioned in the program notes, and that’s clearly what’s being represented here. From this point on, the younger version wanders around, but doesn’t seem to get much dialogue, which made the character seem a bit redundant to me, and a waste of a good actor. (Having checked the playtext, the character seems to have more to say than I remember, so perhaps lines were cut, or perhaps they just didn’t register with me.)

The second act covered the run up to WWII, and a brief part of MacMillan’s wartime career when he was based in North Africa. While out there he met Eisenhower, and the two men got along well, which would be to MacMillan’s benefit in later years. At this point MacMillan gets the chance to save a young pilot’s life after his plane crashes, and there seemed to be some lessening of his survivor’s guilt, though I wasn’t absolutely sure about this. However, it does seem to be his turning point, when he becomes much tougher and determined to succeed.

Before this, the play covers the plotting that went on in the Conservative party after Chamberlain’s triumphant return from Germany with minimalist stationary supplies, and it was very entertaining. The opening scene shows MacMillan visiting his mother, who is constantly telling him off for his political choices, including becoming MP for a constituency north of Watford. It’s an absolutely hilarious scene, with several very funny lines, impeccably delivered. We also learn about his wife’s affair with another Tory MP, and one whom MacMillan will be involved with closely, as they’re both supporting Churchill in his attempts to retake power. He refuses to divorce his wife, though, as it would be another block to him holding high office. When the inevitable happens, Churchill takes over as leader of the country, and MacMillan finds himself in Africa talking to Eisenhower (see above).

There were warnings about pyrotechnic effects in the production as we went in, but nothing could have prepared us for the actual plane crash. I felt a serious blast of heat in my seat, and I don’t know how they stopped the flames from scorching the ceiling, never mind the actors. It was most impressive. Fortunately they now have the interval to clean everything up.

After the interval, we see the back room shenanigans involved in the Suez crisis. It’s quite good fun seeing the plotting and intrigue, the speculation about what will happen and, more importantly, how the intervention will look to everyone else. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s a ludicrous plan, but it does show how the last traces of the Empire attitude lingered after WWII. MacMillan’s also in good form, manoeuvring himself nicely into the top job as Eden nose-dives into oblivion. It’s in this scene that his younger self seems particularly quiet and superfluous.

The final act is a short one, and takes us from MacMillan’s appointment as PM to his retirement. We see him getting to grips with the requirements of the top job, including negotiations with the French and with Eisenhower. MacMillan attempts to get access to America’s nuclear secrets, only to be told fairly bluntly that the Americans think the British have been faking their atomic orgasms. The effect of the new generation of satirists is mentioned, and then the Profumo affair comes along, and it’s Supermac’s turn to leave the political merry-go-round. And with a final reference to Google, he bids us farewell and leaves the stage.

As I’ve already said, I enjoyed the performances more than the writing or staging. The problems with the staging were simple, but first I want to describe the set. It had an angled wall with tall doors to our left. The doors have glass panes, so at first I thought they were windows. To our right, there were three or four rows of storage shelves, filled with official-looking boxes; these were moved about in later scenes to create the setting for the  Cabinet Room. Wooden chairs were placed in front of the pillars on either side. It was too gloomy at the start to see what the back wall was like, but it looked like industrial concrete. There was also a huge panel of windows that dropped down towards the front of the stage a couple of times, complemented with two chandeliers, and this usually represented a posh location – the Ritz ballroom perhaps. For the First World War, there were mounds and wire and suchlike to represent the battlefield – these were moved into place behind the panel of windows. A wall with greenery slid on about halfway back on the right, with a bench, and this was the setting for MacMillan’s country home. The plane crash in North Africa had lots of metal barrels standing around to hold the many flames, and for other scenes there were tables and chairs brought on as required.

Although we weren’t sitting that far to the side (about six seats in), I found I could see right through the shelving on our right, into the wings, and so whenever the stage crew were getting ready to move things around, these people who were clearly nothing to do with the performance on stage would come into my line of sight, distracting me for a moment from the play. It happened enough that it affected my enjoyment of the piece, and shows a sad lack of ability on the part of the designer, creating a set with such an annoying tendency to prevent audience members from enjoying the show! The amount of haulage was also a problem at times, and reminded me of Michael Attenborough’s comments about “theatre of burglary”, where the lights go down and people dressed in black come into your home and rearrange the furniture. The burglars were well active today, and obviously so, as this time the lights didn’t go down.

A number of the changes were covered by dances, usually between the acts. These did have the advantage of letting us know which time period we were in, but they went on for so long that the momentum of the performance was lost. Given that the writing was a bit lacking in interest, that’s not a good idea. Other than that, I liked the set and the flexibility it gave, but I wouldn’t willingly see this production again, despite the good performances.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at

Pravda – September 2006

Experience: 6/10

By Howard Brenton and David Hare

Directed by Jonathan Church

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st September 2006

We saw this play back in the eighties, at the National, with Anthony Hopkins. I found I couldn’t remember much of it, except for Hopkins’ performance, so I came to this production as a virgin, almost. I found the play dated in parts and with a lack of depth to the characters, but still with some very interesting points to make about power and the abuse of it. There are still a lot of ideas coming to the surface.

The set was very stark. White panels at the back, a wide, raised platform for most of the action in the centre, with some snippets at the front and sides. The floor was covered in reverse print, suggestive of the old printing press, which partly lapped up onto the back panels. The two lower panels slid apart to create doors, slightly wider or narrower as required – simple but effective. A great deal of furniture came on and off during the play, but this was cleverly covered by business at the front of the stage, e.g. newspaper vendors selling their wares and giving us useful headlines to carry the action forward. There were also media interviews of various characters. These two writers know how to put something on the stage; I’ll say that for them.

I enjoyed all of the performances, and only had one difficulty – there’s a scene with four characters speaking with contrasting accents, South African, Australian, Yorkshire, and RP. Maybe it was the weird combination, but I found this hard to follow. Some of the accents seemed to be wandering around the globe a bit, and weren’t immediately recognisable, although this scene was the only one that gave me any real problem.

The play is about the takeover of the British media in the eighties by, mainly, Rupert Murdoch. Represented here by Lambert Le Roux, a South African, he bullies his way to the top, discarding the husks of people he’s used along the way. Those who try to fight back are ruthlessly trampled underfoot, until all come under his sway. Only those who walk away can survive with souls intact, although that’s not as clearly stated as one might wish. It was a tremendous performance by Roger Allam in the lead role. Like Anthony Hopkins, he had the strong physical posture – wide stance, very upright, moving from the shoulders like a bull looking for a china shop. I was convinced by his power and ruthlessness, though not so sure that he could be physically violent when need be. Still, it was a great performance, and fortunately, given that this is a play about a strong, dominating character, the other performances were on a par. The whole production has a balanced feel to it, and there were some lovely cameos for minor characters, such as the political correspondent, whose job was to explain the parliamentary lobby system to us innocents.

It’s interesting to compare our attitudes then and now. I remembered on the journey home how much the British media had been in thrall to Murdoch when he first started mauling his competition. The BBC, in particular, struck me as very wimpish in not standing up to his criticism and fighting their corner. He was a shark swimming into waters that had never seen anything bigger than a herring and he killed at will, but now everyone’s toughened up and shark is the norm.

This play has stood the test of time, and is a good record of the attitudes then, and a warning of how things can change. As Lambert says, “You never used your editorial freedom when you had the chance.” The price of freedom is indeed eternal vigilance, and plays like this help.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at