Quality drama that is a joy to watch

Anne (Jo Herbert - centre) and the ladies of Henry VIII's court

Anne Boleyn

The New Alexandra Theatre

*****

THERE is plenty of historical speculation and conjecture in Howard Brenton's play about Anne Boleyn who literally lost her head over King Henry VIII.

You can dispute and doubt the accuracy but there is no doubt whatsoever that this is a quality production from English Touring Theatre - and a considerable feather in the cap of the Alex.

But this not some dusty, historical play, it is a tale full of life and humour, adventure and romance all tinged with sadness.

James Garnon excels as James I (James VI of Scotland just to keep those from north of the border happy) “the wisest fool in Christendom”.

James had a speech impediment and was said to spit and drool when he spoke but in Garnon's hands the king was impetuous, with all manner of tics and impediments from Jack Douglas to catatonic. We saw James and his penchant for male courtiers – his wife was Anne of Denmark and bore him three children including the future King, Charles – and his drive to attempt to unify the Church in England, which resulted in the King James Bible.

What, you might ask, has James I got to do with Anne Boleyn? She was beheaded almost 30 years to the day before James was born, and born in another country at that.

James Garnon (right) as King James

Brenton uses the arrival of James in London as the hook, with James searching through an old chest of Anne's daughter, Elizabeth I and finding a book by William Tyndale. Tyndale was a leading figure in the reformation, producing a version of the Bible which was the first to be translated from Greek and Hebrew texts and, more dangerously for the Roman Catholic Church and establishment, the first to be printed making it available to all threatening the power and divinity of the Church.

Tyndale was executed for heresy in Brussels in 1536, incidentally, the same year as Anne Boleyn met her fate. Ironically his Bible, which contributed to his death as a heretic, was the basis for the James I authorised version which some scholars claim is more than 80 per cent Tyndale's Bible.

Finding the banned book James attempts to communicate with the ghost of Anne and that brings us to Jo Herbert as a headstrong, confident and manipulative Boleyn.

She was seen as a leading figure in the Reformation, a protestant influenced by Martin Luther and no doubt Tyndale although, despite her two meetings in the play, there is no record of her ever seeing or speaking to Tyndale, played with dour, puritanical dullness by Tim Frances.

Her refusal to become Henry's mistress, unlike her sister Mary earlier, led to Henry trying to get his marriage to Catherina of Aragon annulled by the Pope  which was the start of the Reformation and the break from Rome. Tyndale's view that kings were answerable to God and not the Pope strengthened his argument.

Colin Hurley as Cardinal Wolsey

In David Sturzaker we have a dashing, athletic Henry VIII, as he was in his younger days, besotted by Anne. She bore him a daughter but no son and whether that was her death warrant or, as in the play, her discovery that Henry's enforcer Thomas Cromwell was skimming a healthy share of Church and monastery funds for his own use, or the simple fact that Henry had become bored and was moving on to one of her ladies in waiting, Jane Seymour we will never know. What is certain is that none of the evidence of treason by way of adultery has much credence.

Juius D'Silva's Cromwell is a humourless man with a sinister edge who, in the play is, like Anne, a staunch Protestant and supposedly a protector of Tyndale.

Thus we have two linked stories running in parallel: Anne attempting to bring about the Reformation and a Protestant England and James, brought up a strict Protestant on the orders of Anne's daughter Elizabeth I, trying to bring some order to the warring religious factions, even the Catholics or at least the Catholics who were not trying to kill him with Gunpowder Plots and such.

While Henry had the pompous Cardinal Wolsey, played by Colin Hurley, to contend with James has to out fox  Michael Burtenshaw's Robert Cecil and the leader of the Puritans, Dr John Reynolds, played by Robert Fitch. While all around are an excellent support cast. Theatre to savour.

One a plain set, Designed by Michael Taylor and directed by John Dove this is a fabulous production which was a huge hit at Shakespeare's Globe in 2010 and 2011 deserves to be so at the Alex.

A mention to for the musicians, in a shelf at the top of the set under musical director Jon Banks on Harpsichord and percussion, with Emilia Benjamin and Liam Byrne on strings. To 24-03-12

Roger Clarke

Meanwhile, a chip off the old block  . . .

****

AFTER two sell-out London seasons, this Howard Brenton play is now on a nine-week UK tour which, juging by he quality of the opening night performance at the New Alex, is sure to be just as successful.

It offers a new slant on the controversial Anne Boleyn, whose 'ghost' trigger's the action by parading front of stage with a bloodstained bag containing her head!

But there is much more humour than horror in the story which is beautifully acted by a superb cast in the English Touring Theatre's presentation, directed by John Dove.

Jo Herbert is a delight as Boleyn, seen here as a witty and extremely confident woman with controversial religious ideals, keeping King Henry VIII at arm's length by insisting there is no sex until they are married.

And as their first sexual encournter is about to take place, she announces to the audience that there will be a 15-minute interval,,,,but after a pause adds: "Make that 20 minutes".

A powerful performance, too, from David Sturzaker as Henry, while Christopher Birch perfectly portrays the power weilded by Thomas Cromwell and James Garnon is remarkable in the amusing role of King James I.

The clever play, which runs to 24.03.12, ends with the entire cast dancing to energetically to music provided by Jon Banks, Emilia Benjamin and Liam Byrne. A genuine treat.

Paul Marston 

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