- Title: Henry VIII
- Written by: William Shakespeare and John Fletcher
- Genre: History
- Director: Martha Henry
- Actors: Jonathan Goad, Irene Poole, Rod Beattie
- Company: Stratford Festival
- Venue: Studio Theatre
- City: Stratford, Ont.
- Year: Runs to Oct. 20
Henry VIII, believe it or not, may be the hottest ticket at the Stratford Festival this season.
The history play is rarely done even at theatres dedicated to the Shakespeare, only three times in this particular Canadian classical theatre company’s history before now – and canon completists are coming from far and wide to see it.
Director Martha Henry’s production, which has already been extended, won’t convince anybody that this is unjust neglect, mind you. But her off-beat and sometimes downright goofy take on the play features a few extraordinarily realized scenes that show us different shades of human dissatisfaction.
In between, the show offers an opportunity for some well-known members of the Stratford ensemble to try out nervy performances in the safety of the Studio Theatre with a text that doesn’t have a lot of preconceived notions weighing it down.
Henry VIII’s plot concerns the monarch’s controversial split with Katherine of Aragon and remarriage to Anne Boleyn – and his country’s concomitant dumping of the Roman Catholic Church to hook up with Protestantism.
That’s a pretty sexy slice of history, still fodder for pop culture, but Shakespeare and John Fletcher (the probable co-author, uncredited here) tread lightly; the English reformation was forbidden subject matter when Elizabeth I, Henry’s daughter with Boleyn, was queen and was probably still a pretty touchy subject even a decade after her death when this play premiered.
Most of the action focuses on the English nobility’s attempts, eventually successful, to wrench Henry (a entertainingly peevish Jonathan Goad) away from the influence of Cardinal Wolsey (Rod Beattie), and then their attempt, unsuccessful, to plot against the Archbishop of Canterbury (Brad Hodder).
The Wolsey stuff is compelling. He’s a corrupt cleric whose enemies get sent to the Tower when they get too close to exposing him. The Duke of Buckingham (Tim Campbell), for instance, is executed for treason; I loved the way Campbell portrayed this character’s attempt to go to his death heroically, only partly succeeding in suppressing his actual anger and emotion.
When the cardinal’s misdeeds finally do catch up with him, Wolsey has a different reaction to downfall. He honestly reflects on how he went wrong – and seems relieved to be caught. “Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye: I feel my heart new open’d,” he says.
Beattie, who has portrayed the character as a weasel to this point, pivots wonderfully here – and really does seem to be undergoing a complete change in front of us as he strips out of his red robes and lays them on the floor. It’s surprisingly poignant.
You may be thinking at this point: Okay, but what about Henry’s wives?
Katherine does get a fair bit of stage time, but her story is told in a choppy manner. We see her still in Henry’s favour; then fighting attempts to push her out; then trying oh-so-hard on her deathbed to accept her own fate as a discarded queen.
Irene Poole is strange and riveting in her final scene. Her hands dance in the air, then her eyes stare out into space; it’s like Katherine is trying on different poses that she hopes will be seen as tragic. She desperately does not want for her dissatisfaction to show.
Anne Boleyn (an exuberant Alexandra Lainfiesta) gets shorter shrift. She is a fascinating figure when first introduced, a party girl who tells a confidant (the wry Kim Horsman) that “I would not be a queen / For all the world.” Unfortunately, we don’t get to see how she deals with a world of disappointment. After a glimpse at coronation, she ominously vanishes – giving birth to Elizabeth off-stage.
Henry VIII has more stage directions than any other play with Shakespeare’s name on it, offering plenty of opportunity for pageantry including a royal wedding and a royal christening; its first production is said to have been the cause of the original Globe playhouse burning down – a cannon fired as a special effect set the roof on fire.
In the Studio Theatre, there’s no room for such razzle-dazzle, but designer Francesca Callow’s opulent costumes will please both those looking for gorgeous period garb and something a little funkier. I particularly liked Wolsey’s red pyjamas, which he wears to a very unchristian party where the pleasingly anachronistic elements include helium balloons. (Nothing signals dissatisfaction on a stage better than a balloon.)
Henry seems worried that her audience might be dissatisfied at the end of the play, like pretty much all the characters are (including King Henry, who wanted a boy). The director, uncredited like Fletcher, adds a few lines to the epilogue to apologize on Shakespeare’s behalf for leaving out four of Henry’s wives. But the Bard shaped our views on so many kings, like Richard III and Henry V, it was nice of him to leave most of the queens for others.