Poster for Henry VIII, featuring a king in the centre and two queens either side.

May 21, 2022, by Peter Kirwan

Henry VIII @ Shakespeare’s Globe

This review is of a preview performance.

Amy Hodge’s Henry VIII is the first major mounting of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play since Six: The Musical, in an era that has also seen a Black woman play Anne Boleyn on television, Thomas Cromwell become a leading figure in Hillary Mantel’s book/television/film juggernaut, and Shakespeare’s Globe stage more confrontations with its own history, most prominently Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s channelling of Emilia Lanier to demand that we ‘burn the fucking house down’. Henry VIII – advertised as a writing collaboration between Shakespeare, Fletcher, and Hannah Khalil – was a production aimed squarely at this moment, reworking the play to foreground women’s perspectives and to leave Henry, as in Six, ultimately sidelined in a story that he had thought was all about him.

Hodge’s Women Beware Women, staged at the Sam Wanamaker just before the pandemic, showcased the director’s interest in exposing the hypocrisy of wealthy masculine elites, and Henry felt like a natural progression. Designer Georgia Lowe had covered the tiring house in gold plating for the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and a garish purple banner depicting France and England clasping hands hung over the stage. The conspicuous consumption of the English court was further marked with Prada shopping bags, golden baguettes, and the crass all-purple ensembles worn by the nobles (Adam Gillen’s Henry himself with purple Nikes, a massive purple overcoat, and a rather silly golden cut-out crown). The self-satisfaction of the court as stage-managed by Jamie Ballard’s smug, stately Cardinal Wolsey shone through; England was putting on a gaudy display of itself to the rest of Europe that was, however, empty. Any contemporary commentary was left to the audience to draw.

But from the start, this display wasn’t left unchallenged. The two gentlemen were here translated into two women (Debbie Korley and Anna Savva), who sat on plinths in the pit on blow-up teddy bear chairs, chatting to the audience before the show started, and offering Statler and Waldorf-style commentary on what was happening onstage. These two women played a semi-choric function, often deployed to clean up or attend on others and later progressing to be nurses, but regularly returning to their commentary role. Against the parade of immaculately dressed purple men – Kevin McMonagle’s ludicrously bewigged and officious Chamberlain, Esmonde Cole’s confident Surrey, Baker Mukasa’s joyless and somewhat prissy Norfolk – the women spoke for this London, restless and unhappy, waiting to intervene.

Their commentary was joined by two new additions to the play, the twin chorus of narrator/singer Genevieve Dawson and Natasha Cottriall’s Princess Mary. Working with composer s Tom Deering and Maimuna Mermon, Khalil had written extensive new text for this Henry VIII, drawing heavily on Shakespeare’s (not Fletcher’s!) sonnets and plays, which was spread among the whole company but particularly concentrated in these two characters. Dawson – who seemed to somehow magically be accompanied by a permanent Bollywood-style breeze that kept her hair and golden shirt flowing aesthetically – walked slowly about the auditorium, her folksy ballads slowing down the production to pull out the significance of what was happening. She was regularly echoed by Mary, the neglected daughter, who railed against her father’s glumness at having no heir, and extrapolated from her position the fate of all forgotten women doomed to be disregarded by a patriarchal society. ‘I shall do such things’ she finally erupted, channelling Lear. Her role was to comment on the unfairness of a society organised around male desires and male hopes; Dawson’s was to bring the women – including the two gentlewomen, Mary, and the queens Katharine (Bea Segura) and Anne (Janet Etuk) – into unified harmony with one another, the chorus of six (ha!) women gradually over the course of two and a half hours reclaiming this stage from the men who dominated it at the start. Both acts concluded with a chorus of a song based around the refrain ‘Unmannerly we women’, unapologetically demanding to be heard.

There was a lot to do to get to that point, though. Gillen’s venal Henry VIII was a brazenly physical man, scrawny and exposed, driven by his bodily functions. It was hard to imagine that he would top his performance at the masked revels, the high point of which saw him running around the Globe stage with a massive ten-foot inflatable golden cock and balls while his male courtiers ejaculated confetti guns from their crotches. But later, his golden throne was turned around to reveal a massive golden toilet, on which Henry sat furiously masturbating with one hand while eating a chicken leg in the other. Weedy-voiced and wandering around in y-fronts and dressing gown, this was Henry stripped of the robust finery of the popular image, and instead turned into something closer to King John, petulant and pathetic.

Henry wasn’t without his better points – he had affection for Katharine, he was furious when he heard about the taxation of the peasantry – but he was, as his drooping chicken leg visualised, impotent, and in more ways than one. His energies were directed entirely towards the continuation of his line. In one nightmarish sequence towards the end of the first half, he brought Anne a parcel that turned out to be full of pink balloons; he then blew up a blue balloon and forced it under her dress while she sat on his throne, then began bursting all of the pink balloons with his bare hands so forcefully that his crown ended up falling around his head. Later, his demand to hear that Anne had given birth to a boy was comically answered with the revelation of an enormous pink ‘IT’S A GIRL!’ cake, causing him to punch the midwife Hope in the face and storm off. The theatre of gender reveal parties and birth celebrations became part of Henry’s insistence on rigidly gendered roles in service of his own version of masculinity, and the violence visited upon the woman who bore the news showed just how toxic this focus was.

Henry’s weakness gave Wolsey space to work. Ballard is one of the best Shakespearean actors working today, and his Wolsey – again, a slimmer and more active man than the popular conception of the character – was expert at working his schemes. Presenting himself as pious, dignified, and above all reasonable, Wolsey’s soft power was a combination of pre-planning and expert improvisation. The early betrayal of the upright Buckingham (Jonan Russell) was handled efficiently, and the sycophantic Lord Chamberlain reported to Henry having heard Buckingham claim that he could ‘smile, and murder while I smile’. This was a place where the use of recognisable Shakespearean quotation worked beautifully metatheatrically; the audience was assumed to know that these were Richard of Gloucester’s words, not Buckingham, but it didn’t prevent the Duke from being shot in the head by a vindictive Chamberlain in a brutal onstage execution. Buckingham’s nobility and blunt candour as he faced death initiated the series of downfalls engineered by a court that had no true leadership.

The conflict between Wolsey and Katharine was perhaps the clearest central arc of the production. Wolsey’s manipulation of events leading up to the trial gave full cover to Henry, who followed along willingly. Katharine’s furious defiance (which drew on Constance, as she spoke of grief filling up the room of her lost children with Henry) drew attention to her otherness (having an actual Spanish actor play Katharine was a real bonus here) and to the smallness of the Englishmen arraigning her, particularly as she appealed to the Pope, leaving even Cardinal Campeius (Russell) lost for words. But when the Cardinals visited Katharine in her private rooms later, the real evil of Wolsey emerged. Losing his patience, Wolsey advanced on her forcefully, roaring and threatening – before lowering his hand firmly onto her head in a gesture that looked like a blessing, but felt like he was crushing her as he forced her to her knees. Campeius followed this up by kneeling beside her and putting her arm around her, his embrace a vice-like prison. The physical restraining of the woman made clear that, however it was dressed up and sanitised, what governed this court was the continual threat of male violence against women.

Yet everyone was a victim here. Henry’s sudden realisation after Katharine’s trial that he could break from the Catholic church entirely – which got a huge laugh from the audience as he did a double-take at his own idea – was followed later by Henry throwing files of documents at Wolsey, and Wolsey losing everything. Ballard’s tears as everything about Wolsey collapsed were heartbreaking, and his ability to find the broken man under the evils of the character led to one of the production’s high points. Mourning for himself, for his country, for those he left – with Cromwell (Cole) sharing his tears – the musicians struck up a piano-led dirge to accompany him. But as he told Cromwell that he was happy, and stood upright, finding his religious salvation in his repentance, acoustic guitar joined the instrumentation and offset the minor. Ballard stripped, and Wolsey left, shirtless, through the audience. The transcendent moment was mirrored later as Katharine died, the production’s women appearing as shrouded angels around the theatre and escorting her to her paradise, again to song.

What of Anne, in all this? There was certainly something of the willing homewrecker in Etuk’s performance, at least initially as she led the revels around the inflatable golden representation of Henry’s penis or as she joyfully received the massive purple teddy bear that announced her position as Marquesse of Pembrokeshire, and then drew on Emilia’s lines ‘It is their husbands’ fault if women do fall’ as she embraced her future. But Anne was as much of a victim as anyone else, and as she reached out at one point to connect with the thrown-off Katharine, Henry pulled her away. Thereafter, as Henry stuffed his blue balloon up Anne’s dress, and later as she screamed ‘the world must be peopled!’ while going through a traumatic birth, Anne was visible entirely as the vessel for Henry’s expectations, with little affection between them. The racial diversity of the cast across rank and role makes any all-encompassing claims about the signification of race complex, but the exoticisation of the Black Anne by the white Henry in the pursuit, followed by the mechanisation of the way she was then deployed in his service, was unmistakeable, a potent contribution to the patterns that Yasmine Hachimi and others have identified in the racialised representation of Tudor queens.

The brutality enacted on women throughout this Henry VIII created a coherence all of this production’s own. The entire Cranmer storyline and character was excised, allowing the production to instead focus on the consequences of a world run by a petulant, single-minded, unbridled white man. The neglect of Mary; the humiliation of Katharine; the physical degradation of Anne; the violence against Hope; the repeated punishment of women for being women turned what was often a hilariously satirical production into something much more important. And it offered redress. In its final scene, a quiet Anne and a bored, sulky Henry brought out a purple pram with their baby. But as Cromwell held up the child and prophesied, Korley emerged as the adult Elizabeth in full golden regalia, and then took over. The sight and sound of a dark-skinned Black woman speaking the Golden Speech was spellbinding. Here, the Speech was taken seriously, promising a better kind of rule, a rule that would protect its people, that would last only as long as she could do good. And around her, the production’s women gathered, while a disgusted Henry, no longer the centre of attention, finally left the stage. ‘Unmannerly we women’ sang the four queens and the two other women, holding the stage, creating their space. The men then returned via the pit, waiting their cue to be allowed back in and to now join the women’s song. And Henry VIII ended, with the hope that Henry VIIIs will no longer have their way.

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