Originally seen at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2011, Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn gives Henry VIII’s second wife a radical reinvention. Gone is the ambitious schemer using sex to snare the king, and in her place is a well-intentioned religious fanatic. With better casting and a less clunky production it might have worked, but there’s not enough connection or energy on stage to maintain the pace during the frequent theological digressions.
The Festival Theatre is an unfortunate choice of venue. This is a play designed to acknowledge the audience, but when they are kept at a safe distance by the proscenium arch the actors struggle to make a real connection with them. A more intimate space, preferably with a thrust stage, would have created a greater sense of involvement and resolved some of the issues with use of the stage, which was sadly unimaginative. Too often the cast appeared to be spreading out to make it look full, forcing them to bellow at each other from a distance. It’s difficult to believe that characters are exchanging heretical secrets that could cost them their lives when they seem to do nothing but shout about them.
Perhaps there would have been less shouting and more emotional range had the casting been less odd. There’s very little chemistry between David Sturzaker’s Henry VIII, who would look more at home in a George Street bar than a Tudor court, and Jo Herbert’s gangly, jolly Anne. Their seven-year courtship seems unlikely enough, but the idea that such a lukewarm love affair could play a key role in the Reformation is downright implausible.
Anne’s ladies in waiting boost the number of roles for women but are used for pretty set-dressing rather than fleshed out into real characters. In sharp contrast, Julius D’Silva delivers a sleek, nuanced performance as Thomas Cromwell, ably matched by Colin Hurley’s Cardinal Wolsey. Tim Frances also stands out as down to earth heretic William Tyndale, but it is unfortunate that his meetings are attended by so many stock yokels that they seem less like a hotbed of subversion and more like a Tudor edition of The Archers.
James Garnon teeters dangerously on the brink of parody as James VI, sporting uncontrollable hair and an accent borrowed from Billy Connolly. By far the most interesting character, King James flits between dazzling displays of political acumen and twitching idiocy. It’s a strong performance but slightly undermined by the accent lapsing into comedy Scot and a tendency to play the moments of twitching and stammering for laughs.
The relationship between the worlds of James VI and Anne Boleyn are interesting if a little unclear, but the script is witty enough to be forgiven much. In the early scenes much is made of Queen Elizabeth’s wardrobe of 2000 gowns – a shame, then, that Anne is only ever seen in two. The simple set makes sense for a production of a play clearly influenced by Shakespeare, but less austere costuming might have helped to create the world of the Tudors and give a sense of the passage of time. It is a pity that English Touring Theatre’s revival of The Globe’s production looks and feels makeshift rather than the sumptuous treat it could have been.
8 – 12 May, 19.30 Festival Theatre