August 29, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Henry VIII (AandBC) @ Holy Trinity Church

I arrived at Holy Trinity Church tonight and was stopped by a passer–by who asked me if they regularly put on plays at the church, to which I replied that it was a one–off for AandBC, the visiting company. This gent was quite disapproving of the use of a church for theatre, and I do understand where he was coming from. The church and theatre have a long–standing relationship though, for better and worse, and tonight Holy Trinity became the leading player in an inspired take on ‘Henry VIII‘.

This is one of the last and least–performed of Shakespeare’s plays, a history without any of the violence or feuding that gives the earlier histories colour. ‘Henry VIII‘ is a play of conversations and processions, of political maneuvering and debates about policy. Wordy and action–free, it doesn’t lend itself as well as others to the modern stage, and has even been referred to as a dramatic poem, rather than a play. Also, a great deal of it is by John Fletcher, meaning it’s achieved far less attention.

In Holy Trinity, though, the play came into its own. The huge great doors of the main area formed a stately entrance door to outside, where fireworks were set off that shone through the stained glass windows. The enormous pipe organ provided stately and triumphant music, joined at the curtain call by the chiming of the church bells. As characters died, the lights over the distant altar rose and the dying moved in slow procession towards it, approaching heaven. And, in the finale, the future Queen Elizabeth was baptised in the church’s ancient stone font.

The atmosphere was pretty electric. Two sections of tiered seating stretched half the length of the church, the stage being the long thin strip between the two. The actors were close enough that I can tell you Henry had blue eyes with a slight hint of grey around the irises. The intimacy of the action combined with the imposing grandeur of the church made for a truly memorable experience.

It wasn’t all about the venue, though. Antony Byrne in particular excelled as a fully–rounded Henry VIII, who spent most of the first act in hunting gear or barefoot. Contrary to popular image, here was a Henry who cared about his supporters, but was fearsome to those who opposed him. He was also fun–loving and cracked jokes, giving a camp ‘Here’ to his formal summons and cackling ‘Mint sauce’ at one of the revellers dressed as a sheep. While obviously misled by the Cardinal about his Queen, he was an admirable King whose strength dominated the play even when he wasn’t present.

Elsewhere, Cardinal Wolsey was a very short man whose manipulations were almost forgiven as the first act ended with him steadying himself against the font as his whole world crumbled around him. Katherine held herself steady throughout her troubles, until her final entrance when she was helped in by the dim flicker of candlelight, and fainted on the floor before the angels. The most powerful moment came as Buckingham prepared for his execution, as he stood trembling while choric voices echoed from the eaves.

The show was completely stolen, though, by a real tiny baby standing for Princess Elizabeth at her christening– despite the wonderfully delivered predictions about her future, almost all eyes were fixed on the impeccably–behaved little girl as she stretched her arms out towards her maid. Gooey, I know, but I defy anyone at our end of the rows to have taken their eyes off her– she was so cute!

This was one of the plays I was most excited to see, partly for its rarity in performance and partly for the location– and I enjoyed it. AandBC specialise in location–specific theatre, and here they truly used their environment to its full potential, while giving a lively and intelligent reading of an oft–overlooked play.

Posted in Theatre review