Anne Boleyn (Globe Theatre)

Originally published on my LiveJournal blog on 21 August 2011.

Howard Brenton’s play about Henry VIII’s second wife, Queen Anne (Boleyn), was one of the hits of The Globe Theatre’s 2010 season, and makes a welcome return here, with Miranda Raison again in the lead.

If you’re expecting Shakespeare, or even exact historical accuracy, then think again. The play opens with James VI of Scotland (and I of England) coming to terms with his new role as the English King following the death of Elizabeth I (daughter of Henry VIII and Anne). This Scot is boorish, annoying, and full of prattle – hard to reconcile with the witty scholar James is commonly known to be. He senses the spirit of Anne Boleyn when he sees her Coronation gown, and this is the cue for Brenton to bring the executed Queen back to life, with some repartee with the audience over whether or not she should show us her head … or her Bible!

Miranda Raison as Anne Boleyn.
Miranda Raison as Anne Boleyn.

The story of Anne and how she came to capture the King’s heart, oust Katherine of Aragon from the court and position, and become Queen, was told already in Shakespeare’s ‘Henry VIII’, seen at The Globe last year, and so is not really repeated here. Brenton’s focus is on religion, and how Anne’s Protestant leanings eventually took wing as James I of England commissions a new translation of The Bible based on the heretical text of William Tyndale’s version.

Brenton surmises that Anne did indeed meet with Tyndale, but there is little historical evidence for this – equally there is a little playing with facts (Wolsey’s head could not be laid before Anne by Henry to show his love, even rhetorically, as he was not executed; and James I could not be happy at his mother’s execution as he was too small to really be aware of it).

This play stands or falls on whether you know your English history, I think – and how well you know other versions of the story of Henry and Anne. References to rope torture in Act Two may well be reminiscent of ‘Anne of the Thousand Days’, while the significance of Jane Rochford’s betrayal early on can be better understood knowing from the start she was married to Anne’s brother, who went to the block for treason and incest, accused alongside his sister.

Raison is a good Anne, self-assured, confident, but collapsing at the news she is to be removed from her position and put to trial and death. As Henry, Anthony Howell is very much a young blade (although in actual fact he had been married to Katherine for many years, so was considerably older than Anne). Memorable performances are achieved by Colin Hurley as Cardinal Wolsey, Julius D’Silva as Thomas Cromwell, and Peter Hamilton Dyer as William Tyndale.

The James I plot is OK, but is the weakest link in this production. James Garnon gives a good enough performance but it too thickly laid on with comic looks, grimaces, and a ludicrous dance with George Villiers (in historical fact, Villiers was a favourite of the King, but whether he ever danced with him while he wore Anne Boleyn’s Coronation dress is unknown, and unlikely …).

Enjoyable, then, but not without fault. Perhaps that is exactly how Henry VIII would have described Anne Boleyn.