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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Shakespeare’s Globe


  Anthony Howell and Miranda Raison/ Ph: Manuel Harlan

Shakespeare’s Globe has become an unlikely home for long-in-the-tooth left-wing playwrights writing about their heroes. Last year, veteran Marxist Trevor Griffiths wrote a gritty piece about the revolutionary Tom Paine. This year’s new play, by Howard Brenton, is about Henry VIII’s second wife, who failed to produce a male heir and was beheaded. It’s funny, informative, rather touching. It also fits snugly into the repertoire as the modern antidote to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, which sucks up to the Tudors.
This doesn’t. The tone of the piece – frisky, forthright and irreverent – is perfectly caught in the performance of Miranda Raison (as Anne), who we first see on stage with her own head in a bag, cheerfully duetting with her severed bonce. 
There are a dozen historical versions of this woman Brenton could have picked from. This Anne is a devout, sexy young woman who genuinely loved Henry and tragically had one miscarriage too many. Brenton also depicts her – on what historical basis I couldn’t say – as an important figure in the Protestant Reformation. She has secret, forest assignations with religious reformer William Tyndale, the banned Protestant radical whose samizdat bible would form the basis of the more famous James I version. Tyndale has not many lines but here they count. Brenton surely has another play to write on this chap and his followers.
The action is told in two time zones, boldly fast forwarding 70 years to James I’s era, so that we see the new Stuart monarch struggling with the bickering rival Protestant factions in a new church built out of the wreckage of Henry's battle with the Pope. James is among the evening’s chief delights. Hilariously played by James Garnon with a Tourette’s twitch, a passion for women's dresses and his boyfriend Villiers, and a knack for dealing with his tiresome bishops. 
In the Tudor sections, the play looks like A Man For All Seasons but without the star role of Thomas More – who kept, we learn, a much-used torture chamber in his basement (not something you heard mentioned when the Vatican recently promoted him to a saint.) But the rest of the Tudor court is all there: Anthony Howell is a fine and handsome Henry VIII. Colin Hurley (padded out to Orson Welles dimensions) is a sly Cardinal Wolsey, a schemer upstaged in evil by Thomas Cromwell (brilliantly played by John Dougall), a court Machiavel of the first order. One of the aspects of court life that hits home hardest is its sheer Stalinist terror: You could be arrested and tortured at any moment. Anne Boleyn steers an honourable path of self-preservation and romantic optimism through all this intrigue. 
John Dove directs with the right sense of irreverence for costume drama conventions. We don’t see her execution, but Anne asks us finally what we, the audience, believe in, just when we were feeling smugly superior to all this religious passion and brutality going on around us. It’s a good question. And it’s a good play too, one that plays to the strengths of this lively and unpompous theatre. 

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