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Theatre review: Anne Boleyn 
11th-Aug-2010 11:23 pm
It's another of those unplanned double bills where, by coincidence, I see two plays by the same author on consecutive nights. This time it's Howard Brenton and first up, his new play for the Globe, Anne Boleyn. Tying in with this theatre's first ever revival of Henry VIII, the season's first new play also takes its leading lady from that production, Miranda Raison getting a lot more to do here with Anne (Raison being of course an old hand at performing Brenton's scripts, as he's written many Spooks episodes.) Despite what the subject matter and the location might suggest, Brenton doesn't opt to make his story a tragedy - in fact the story's bloody end is defused right from the start, as Anne's ghost arrives on stage with her severed head in a bloody sack and teases the audience about whether they'd like to see it. Raison is on brilliant, twinkly-eyed form from the start which does eventually mean her breakdown as she faces the reality of her execution is more heartbreaking. But while this Queen is a highly physical, sexual force that knows how to wrap Henry around her little finger, making him wait no less that seven years before having sex with him, Brenton's main conceit is to position her as a kind of English, Protestant Joan of Arc - a very devout young woman whose determination to be Henry's queen is driven equally by genuine love for him, and by hopes that she can sow the seeds of what would become the Reformation.

This religious theme is brought together through the framing device, in which James I has just become King of England following Elizabeth's death. He becomes obsessed with his predecessor's mother and wishes he could speak to her ghost - all the while dealing with the Anglican vs Puritan debates that would end with the King James Bible, as the culmination of what Anne had started two generations beforehand (the play has Anne as the one who gives Henry the idea that leaving Rome would give him more personal power.) James Garnon's King James is another interesting performance, that works despite being, intentionally, pretty broad. Cursed with an exaggerated nervous twitch and odd social skills - his interest in Anne extends to wearing her dresses, and having taken a shine to Ben Deery's George Villiers, he has to be politely asked to stop kissing him as the bishops are due to arrive¹ - all this does is make people underestimate his cunning as he manipulates the debates towards a solution.

John Dove's production is spot-on, with moments of tension frequently broken up with a lot of great comedy, and most of the performances are excellent. I'm not sure that John Dougall's seemingly harmless Thomas Cromwell really worked when he had to show his true colours and set up Anne's fall. But ultimately this is Anne's, and Miranda Raison's show. It's hardly a warts-and-all portrayal - Brenton admits that working on the play has made him a member of the "cult" of Anne Boleyn - but it's a great night at the theatre that'll easily convert the audience to the cult as well.

Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton is in repertory until the 21st of August at Shakespeare's Globe.

¹it's nice to hear a packed Globe cheer at the two men snogging the face off each other; yes I know it's 2010 but it's not that long ago there'd have been a good few "ew"s in there as well
(Deleted comment)
12th-Aug-2010 11:21 am (UTC)
I always think it must be really daunting to write a new play for the Globe, but I think it's important that they do commission new plays so it doesn't just become a tourist trap. This is a really good example of a play that works for the Globe, a subject-matter from roughly the time of the original Globe, but a modern approach.
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