So, quite by accident yesterday evening, I ended up catching one of the preview performances of Henry VIII at the Folger. It was a production I'd wanted to see, but hadn't quite figured out when I'd manage it. Through a nice series of coincidences, I was spending yesterday afternoon in the Folger and after finishing dinner, realised I had enough time to get back for the evening performance. So, there we go.
Short version: SEE IT IF YOU CAN. IT IS GREAT.
I did not do a review of the Shakespeare Theatre's Richard II from earlier this year because I knew it would be nothing but bile and rage. Their All's Well that Ends Well, which I saw a few weeks ago, had a wonderful Helena, an awful Countess, and everyone else in between, and in the end was only so-so. Which is why I was so happy to find as fantastic a production as I found at the Folger last night.
First of all, the sets are amazing. They're made enitrely out of wrought-iron and simultaneously give the impression of luxury and imprisonment. The centrepiece is a circular balcony above the mainstage that looks almost like a crown and that they used incredibly well throughout the production.
Henry VIII is such a strange play. Anyone who's read it will agree with me, I'm sure. It really is an ensemble piece (like The Merchant of Venice ought to be, in my opinion), with enough disparate plotlines that it can feel a bit disjointed on the page. It doesn't really have a climactic event either; you get nods to most of the major events from 1520 to 1533, and it ends with a panegyric to Elizabeth I. It's also a piece of metatheatrical oddity, constantly reflecting back on itself and the events it's relating. I would argue that most of Shakespeare's history plays are doing this to a lesser or greater extent, but the Folger production took that aspect of the play and made it a major thematic and visual point.
First, they gave the audience a viewpoint character in Will Somers, Henry's fool (Louis Butelli), who opened the play with the Prologue while doing a one-man dumbshow with puppets representing Henry and Katherine (the puppets became a recurring motif). He went on to play a whole selection of minor roles, changing onstage into wigs, armour, a Cardinal's robe (Campeius), and even a dress (the old lady, Anne's gentlewoman), and as a casting choice, it worked brilliantly, holding the play together in a really fun way.
Ian Merrill Peakes did a great job bringing out Henry's capriciousness, but I was surprised (having not reread the play recently) at how small a part he is, considering he's the title character. He's got the one giant speech in the scene at Blackfriars, but aside from that, he comes across as very easily manipulated, or so it seemed to me. Naomi Jacobson was the one good thing in STC's Richard II (she played the Duchess of York in the ONE SCENE in that entire production that didn't suck) and she did a wonderful job as Katherine of Aragon. They did cut Katherine's dream, which was a bit sad because it's such a bizarre, interesting scene, but the entire production had a dreamlike quality to it, so I suppose it made sense to cut a scene that might have belaboured the point.
I've never been sure what to make of Anne Boleyn in this play. She's a complete nonentity (which is exactly what happens in the chronicles, particularly Hall's), and specifically labelled an ardent Protestant (thank you, John Foxe!). Karen Peakes did a decent enough job with an extremely underwritten role and did have the advantage of looking a lot like this portrait of Anne. Most striking, though, was the brief coronation scene where she bore a truly eerie resemblance to the Elizabeth I Coronation Portrait. I don't know if it was intentional, but it worked very well.
A lot of the great aspects of this production were nonverbal. The Somers character linked all the scenes visually as he weaved in and out of the action. There was even a gorgeous echo of the RSC Histories (well, it felt like that to me) in the staging of Wolsey's downfall as a shower of letters falling over him as Norfolk and Suffolk circled him, listing his crimes against Henry. But what made the ending a complete gut-punch was replacing Katherine's lady-in-waiting with Princess Mary (this required a few tweaks of some of the lines, but they did make it clear she was Mary), and having her stnading in the background when Henry says:
O lord Archbishop,
Thou hast made me now a man. Never before
This happy child did I get anything.
Having her standing there and saying nothing for most of the play really brought home Mary's absence in the text. It also makes me want to write about the play and Invisible Wimminz. I will have to mention that, perhaps, when I talk about Anne's weird absence in other sources.
Also, the music was gorgeous. The actress playing Mary had this wonderful, crystalline soprano that they used to full effect in between scenes, and they interspersed actual period pieces (including 'Pastime With Good Company' and what I'm about 90% sure was Tallis) alongside the incidental score.
To conclude, a striking production that uses visual and thematic cues to hold a disjointed play together. I definitely recommend it. Running through November 20.
Oh, and the Henry VIII exhibit in the Library is also really good. I drooled over lots of books, including a 1548 edition of Le miroir de l'âme pêcheresse as translated by Elizabeth I. It's TINY. And ADORABLE.
Also, I sniggered every time I saw something I'd quoted in my dissertation. That made for a lot of sniggering. They sadly did not have a copy of Hall out, though they did have a Holinshed, and a facsimile of the 1550 frontispiece to Hall, with its miraculous all-male family tree (except for Elizabeth of York, Margaret Beaufort, and 'Eleanor, doughter to the Earl of March', who I am fairly certain was actually named Anne; bad Grafton!). So, well worth having a look if you're around.