Stage Door Review

Henry VIII

Monday, June 10, 2019

✭✭✭✩

by William Shakespeare & John Fletcher, directed by Martha Henry

Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford

May 29-November 2, 2019

Henry VIII: “This oracle of comfort has so pleased me, 

That when I am in heaven I shall desire

To see what this child does, and praise my Maker”

The Stratford Festival’s fourth production of Henry VIII is not quite the best that Stratford has achieved before with this unusual play. People like to think of The Tempest (1611) as Shakespeare’s last play, but, in fact, he went on to write at least two more in collaboration with John Fletcher (1579-1625) – Henry VIII (1613) and The Two Noble Kinsmen (1614). The last production of Henry VIII at Stratford was in 2004. It was full of pageantry but seriously miscast. The present production is also full of pageantry and is also miscast but not as seriously as in 2004. Martha Henry’s direction gives the play greater cohesion than Brian Rintoul was able to give it in 2004. Yet, despite a number of fine individual scenes, especially those concerning Katherine of Aragon, the play comes off mostly as an artful attempt to exculpate Henry VIII of any wrongdoing during his early reign.

As I said of the play in 2004, “Written under the first Stuart king, James I, criticism of monarchs was not allowed while criticism of Catholicism was encouraged. Belying the play’s subtitle ‘All is True’, Shakespeare and Fletcher have the task of portraying Henry in the early years of his reign in a completely positive light. Thus we see blame for all misdeeds in the kingdom shifted onto Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s chief advisor, who is portrayed as a sly Machiavellian who uses his power for personal gain.

The play is structured as a series of rotations of the wheel of fortune covering a period from 1521-1533. Three people fall from power--first the Duke of Buckingham, the most powerful noble in England, because of Wolsey’s enmity; then Henry’s queen of 20 years, Katherine of Aragon, because Wolsey emphasizes Henry’s sin of marrying his brother’s widow; and finally Wolsey himself when his chicanery is uncovered. The fourth fall, that of Thomas Cranmer, is imminent, but Henry, without Wolsey, is wiser than before and sees through the conspiracy himself to save Cranmer and signal a break from Rome 

The play ends with the birth of Elizabeth to Anne Boleyn, the king now supposedly reconciled to having a woman as heir and with Cranmer’s prophesy of her future greatness. (The play focusses solely on Henry’s first two wives.) The implication is that just as the mature Henry was able to halt the turning of the wheel of fortune through his will, Elizabeth will do the same for all of England and lead the realm to unparalleled prosperity”. 

Jonathan Goad makes a youthful but concerned Henry VIII, who nevertheless does not give the impression of thinking too deeply about his decisions. Shakespeare and Fletcher give Henry VIII his longest speech in Act 2, Scene 4, where he explains his reasons for divorcing Katherine although he still loves her. He claims that his conscience was stricken when the French ambassador asked if his daughter Mary was legitimate since Henry in marrying Katherine had married the widow of his brother Arthur. Although Henry does not cite it, Leviticus 20:21 states: “ And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing”. 

This is Henry’s most important speech in the play, and although Goad lends it a gravitas of mein, he does not fully convince us, as he must, that Henry casts off Katherine because of a crisis of conscience rather than that he has seen the lovely Anne Boleyn (Alexandra Lainfiesta) at a party in the previous act. Goad is much better later in the play when in expressing outrage when he seeks to protect Cranmer (Brad Hodder) from a conspiracy of the nobles.

As it happens, Shakespeare and Fletcher do fulfil their propagandistic duty of leaving Henry blameless for his divorce of Katherine, yet, despite acceding to James I’s anti-Catholic sentiment in general, the two playwrights, with an inherent sense of where the true drama lies, cannot avoid making Katherine the most sympathetic character in the play. Irene Poole gives a magnificent performance as Katherine. Poole lends Katherine such grace, intelligence and dignity that she immediately casts an ill light on Henry and Wolsey, whom we saw carousing in the previous act. Poole speaks Katherine’s words with an intensity borne of watchful care now that she finds herself in inimical surroundings and of a justified anger she knows she must suppress. Poole’s portrayal of Katherine’s decline and death is understated in such a way that it only increases its poignancy and makes the scene stand out as the most moving in the play.

Cardinal Wolsey is one of the three dramatically richest roles in the play being an outwardly pious man who inwardly schemes to increase his own worldly power and wealth. When William Hutt played the role in 1986 he turned it into frightening study of hypocrisy and malice made worse because a naive king fails to recognize them in his most trusted advisor.

Here Rod Beattie is unable to convey the duplicity necessary to make to character effective and to thereby increase the level of tension in the drama. Hutt used a quiet tone that suggested humility while simultaneous hinting at connivance. Beattie delivers his lines as if Wolsey were simply an honest servant of the king and no more. Only because of one or two asides does Beattie give us any idea that Wolsey may not mean precisely what he says. Beattie only rises close to the demands of the part when Wolsey falls from favour and meditates on the course of his life. Here Beattie is able clearly to bring out Wolsey’s ruefulness but not the bitterness that Hutt was also able to convey.

The first of the three characters to fall from the height of their power is the Duke of Buckingham. Although the character has little time on stage, Tim Campbell makes him memorably brave and a fitting precedent for the greater fall of Katherine. Brad Hodder is a fine Thomas Cranmer and transforms himself from the beleaguered scholar he seems to be when we first meet him into an inspired prophet who foresees the future greatness of Princess Elizabeth. Qasim Khan plays the Bishop of Winchester as a younger, meaner Wolsey in the making and lends his character the air of scheming and menace that Beattie could not emanate as Wolsey. 

Stratford stalwarts Wayne Best as the Duke of Suffolk, Roy Lewis as the Lord Chancellor, Stephen Russell as Lord Chamberlain and Scott Wentworth as Duke of Norfolk speak Shakespearean verse as second nature and thus provide a firm foundation of commentary for the ongoing drama. This makes Jake Runeckles’ portrayal of the Earl of Surrey as a giddy youngster all the more jarring. 

Among the very few women in the play, Alexandra Lainfiesta makes little impression as Anne Boleyn and does not resolve the paradox of Anne’s supposed spurning of wealth but enjoying the King’s attention. The actor who, after Irene Poole, does make a strong impression is Kim Horsman as the Duchess of Norfolk and later the Old Woman who announces the birth of Elizabeth. No matter the characters’ class differneces, Horsman brings out an air of good humour that does much to enliven the play.

Those who complain that the Stratford Festival rarely performs Shakespeare in period costume will have little issue with Francesca Callow’s gorgeous re-creations of 16th-century clothing. She does have the men wear breeches rather than hose which would have been the case though few will be aware of the anachronism. Yet, she does make some odd choices. Her costume for Ron Kennell’s Cardinal Campeius makes him look far too much like Albus Dumbledore to be taken seriously. The greatest peculiarity, which must have been sanctioned by Martha Henry, is to allow feather boas and modern sequins in the party hosted by Cardinal Wolsey, who appears in red pyjamas and a full-length silver-lamé cape. What this sudden incursion of tacky modernity in the midst of period design is supposed to mean is a mystery.

Stratford’s present production of Henry VIII is only the fourth in the Festival’s 67 seasons. This fact alone should make Shakespeare completists seek it out. Also, any of those entranced by Hilary Mantel’s two novels about Thomas Cromwell and his view of the court in the time of Henry VIII will be curious to see how playwrights working only 64 years after Henry’s death portrayed the king. The ways Shakespeare and Fletcher use to adhere to the censorship rules of the time and yet circumvent them for aesthetic purposes is one of the main sources of interest in the play.

The great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye said that Henry VIII belonged not so much in the category of history plays as in that of the romances such as Pericles (1608) and The Tempest (1611). As in a romance, characters go through great travails until something redemptive is born out of so much misery. That literally happens at the end of Henry VIII when it seems that the turnings of the wheel of fortune that have brought down three mighty personages has finally stopped with the birth of Elizabeth, who as Cranmer prophesies, will bring about a time when “God shall be truly known”. The present Stratford production treats Henry VIII more as a history play than the romance that Brian Rintoul succeeded in presenting in 1986. Seeing Shakespeare and Fletcher’s reinterpretation of history as romance is a more intriguing way to view a play that demands a more complex presentation than it receives here. Such a view that sees the workings of Providence within the chronicles of history would help people see more clearly that the play does not deserve its relative neglect. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Brad Hodder (left) as Thomas Cranmer, Wayne Best as the Duke of Suffolk, Jonthan Goad (centre) as Henry VIII, Kim Horsman (under canopy) as the Duchess of Norfolk; Rod Beattie as Cardinal Wolsey and Jonthan Goad as Henry VIII; Alexandra Lainfiesta as Anne Boleyn, Oksana Sirju as Jane Seymour, Irene Poole as Queen Katherine and Jacklyn Francis as the Marchioness of Dorset. © 2019 Emily Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.