by Charlotte Crow,
Howard Brenton’s new play Anne Boleyn, which has just opened at the Globe Theatre directed by John Dove, pays homage to ‘a great English woman who helped change the course of our history’( in Brenton’s words).
Since her execution in 1536 on trumped up charges of adultery, incest and treason, Henry VIII’s second wife has been depicted in history and literature as either heroic victim or villainous vixen. Here she is decidedly the hero, presented as almost single-handedly responsible for pushing through the English Reformation. But Brenton gives us the dichotomy. Boleyn (Amanda Raison) is an almost too foxy lady whose flirtatious interactions with the king (Anthony Howell) sit confusingly at odds with her pious interest in the works of William Tyndale.
The production is set in historic period, yet Raison (who also performs the role of Boleyn in the Globe’s concurrent staging of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII), perhaps deliberately, has a distinctly 21st-century aura; with her brashness she might have strolled in from Tate Modern next door. ‘Do you want to see it? Do you? Do you?’ she provocatively asks the audience -- before pulling her own severed head out of a blood-soaked shoulder bag in the opening scene. Soon after, she remarks of her rival Queen Katherine, ‘I wish that bitch would piss off to a convent’.
The impact of Anne and Henry’s controversial marriage and its bitter legacy is conveyed through a subplot focused on a subsequent monarch’s struggle with religious division. Sixty years after Anne’s death, James I (James Garnon) finds a chest of her relics that inspire him to revisit her story as he wrestles to reconcile the tensions between bishops and puritans in his own time. Though initially distracting this outer layer produces some of the play’s most lively scenes. There is a cleverly staged debate between Church factions, which drives James towards producing his new version of the Bible, for example, and a sharply choreographed dance between the king and his favourite, George Villiers (Ben Deery), that is both funny and poignant.
As with other broad-sweeping history plays, the effort to get across the high drama of a complex subject to audiences who will have varying degrees of insight comes at the expense of intimate character development. Many who see Anne Boleyn may well have had their interest kindled by Hilary Mantel’s engrossing novel Wolf Hall, yet there is no space here to reflect the subtleties of Thomas Cromwell or Jane Rochford. Through no fault of the actors, these remain limited stereotypes, he a Tudor gauleiter, she a misguided busybody.
But Anne Boleyn nevertheless went down a storm with the audience, suggesting that Brenton’s hunch to give this significant historical woman a platform in our times is right on cue.
Until August 21st
21 New Globe Walk, Bankside
London SE1 9DT