Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
The king takes all. The queen has not produced an heir, and the Tudor line is in jeopardy. Obsessed, Henry sets his eye on the fetching young Anne Bullen (Boleyn). Urged on by the Machiavellian Cardinal Wolsey, the king reshapes the world to suit his needs: divorcing the queen, eliminating rivals, flouting papal law, and forever changing the face of religion in England—and beyond. Back by popular demand in its first OSF staging since 1984, Shakespeare’s final history play is directed by John Sipes (King John) as a lavish outdoor spectacle.
Sunday, August 16th, 2009. 8:00 pm performance.
I think Henry VIII is different from any play at Ashland, or any play that I've seen before, because it's a pageant play. That is, it isn't necessarily driven by character or plot devices; it's like a tableau of scenes that tells a historical story. Although there are a couple of really awesome monologues by Wolsey and Katherine, for the most part I didn't find the dialogue to be very interesting. (Since this play isn't a pure Shakespeare, I guess that isn't very surprising?) The purpose of the play seems to be educating the watcher about what happened in English history, which is different from entertaining someone or trying to make them feel an emotion.
Katherine of Aragon (Vilma Silva) and Henry VIII (Elijah Alexander) at the beginning of the play, discussing taxation. Photo by Jenny Graham.
The play was beautiful. The rich costumes were just stunning. I was amazed by the cloth-of-silver and cloth-of-gold gowns worn by Katherine of Aragon. In her first scenes, she looked so regal and so strong. But after the divorce had gone through, and she was cast aside by Henry, her clothing became so plain. The light of her glory was fading rapidly, but Katherine still showed an inner strength that did not need glorious clothes to highlight them.
By contrast, I thought Henry, despite his great power and wealth, never seemed to show such inner strength, no matter how beautifully he was turned out. It seemed funny to me that a play entitled 'Henry VIII' features him so infrequently. Granted, Shakespeare couldn't really talk about him much because his rule had been so recent. The way he tiptoes around the historical Henry's thirst for blood and madcap wife switches and is so careful to praise Elizabeth in Cranmer's baptism speech made me think he had written the play during Elizabeth's reign, and that last scene had been an extra-special love letter to the Queen. Knowing now that the play was written during James' reign makes me wonder why they chose to write the baptism scene as they did. It often seemed like James wasn't that fond of Elizabeth; she murdered his mother after all.
The struggle for power in Henry's court is the play's focus. Henry VIII doesn't need to jostle for power with the others – he is the King after all – but he must maintain his power by producing an heir. Katherine must produce the heir to keep her power. Wolsey has much of the power, because he has the King's trust, but he only maintains it as long as he does as the King wishes. Cranmer rises to power because of his great learning, but without Henry VIII's protection he wouldn't last long in court. (Indeed, he was later executed after Henry's death.) As the characters rise to glory and then plummet from it, Henry VIII remains the one in charge, yet he does so little that he barely seems to appear in his own play.
I was really pleased that the director chose to show many of the scenes of the play that were originally written as description, like the Field of Gold in the beginning and Elizabeth's baptism. It would have been a bit tedious to hear two characters describe the action, but the spectacle of the scenes were very elaborate and I'll remember them quite well. (Not to mention the play still felt really long with these speeches cut; I hate to think how hard it would be to sit through a 100% complete script of Henry VIII.)
Photo by David Cooper. Archbishop Cramner (David Kelly) christens Princess Elizabeth with Queen Anne Bullen/Boleyn (Christine Albright).