Stars explained: * A production of no real merit with failings in all areas. ** A production showing evidence of not enough time or effort, or even talent, and which never breathes any real life into the piece – or a show lumbered with a terrible script. *** A good enjoyable show which might have some small flaws but has largely achieved what it set out to do.**** An excellent show which shows a great deal of work and stage craft with no noticeable or major flaws.***** A four star show which has found that extra bit of magic which lifts theatre to another plane.
Half stars fall between the ratings

henry and anee

Henry VIII (Mark Roberts) and his Queen Anne Boleyn (Julia Findlay).

Loft pictures: Richard Smith

Anne Boleyn

The Loft, Leamington


The Loft has triumphed again. Not surprisingly, as before this play, Anne Boleyn, they have staged a run of productions - and now nearly into their centenary - which verge on, if not equal, many on the professional stage. Not just their quality, but their consistency, arouses endless admiration.

The design of their productions (here, Kim Green) proves rarely, if perhaps intermittently, amateur-looking. Some modern hanging tapestries, plus a stone archway and kind of shattered stone wall – a bit like one of those soon to be flattened monasteries – created ample atmosphere.

A curious broken Tudor rose, as if now redundant, decorates the floor. The scene changes gradually became sharper. All units, backstage, sound (Pete Harrison), lights, work like clockwork. Maybe one should simply expect this of any such company. Perhaps one should not overpraise. Here Malcolm Hunt’s lighting conception was especially effective, not least because the cyclorama is invoked not gratuitously, or idly, but always to enhance the particular scene being played out. 

From Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Henry VIII (which burned down The Globe in 1613), via Charles Laughton, Richard Burton and a host of others, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, plus the clerical/secular scheming politicians who heartlessly steer their lives, have stalked stage and screen regularly. Of all Henry’s six queens (what do we know of Catherine Parr or even Jane Seymour?) Anne has always ignited the public imagination. The speed of her rise; the rapidity of her fall; the cooked-up justification for it; her additional role as mother of Elizabeth I.

The Henry VIII Carry on Film starring Sid James was originally entitled ‘Anne of the Thousand Lays’. But the flood of accusations of sexual malpractice which was cynically (though it seems not always inaccurately) used to bring her down plays a very modest part in Howard Brenton’s masterful play named after Anne. We do not see her beautiful head fall (although she brings it in in a bundle to show us at the start).

Extraordinarily prolific, Brenton has written more than 50 performed plays, some in partnership with others – David Hare and Tariq Ali most notably. Anne Boleyn is one of his more recent, even though some 10 more have followed since. A number were for the National Theatre, the most famous – or notorious – of which was The Romans in Britain (1980), which dared to show an instance of male rape. Others were for Nottingham, Bradford, the Royal Court and Birmingham’s own Old Joint Stock. His opera libretto for Benedict Mason’s Playing Away, at Opera North (Leeds), has been ludicrously neglected since.

2010 Boleyn prem

Miranda Raison keeps an eye on things as Boleyn in the 2010 Globe premiere

Anne Boleyn was premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2010. What stalks through Brenton’s version is not schmoozing and canoodling (there’s just a bit of that, pure entertainment), but something quite different: Anne’s view of, even imagined connection with, religion, which, remarkably, indeed tragically, coincided to a degree with the immediately forthcoming shift of Henry’s own principles.

 Above all, the attempt by William Tyndale (1494-1536) to bring the Bible to ordinary homes, by translating it from the Latin and/or Greek into the vernacular. A promulgated sin that brought about his death just a couple of years after Anne’s.

Henry here (Mark Roberts) is an affable guy. Agreeably bluff, and not yet judgemental. Right from the start, Anne reminds us, en passant, that his great Aunt, Margaret of York, had been Duchess (effectively Queen) of Burgundy. Of two of his sisters, one, another Margaret, was married to the ill-fated King of Scotland; and Mary, to the King of France. She might have added that, on his mother’s side, Richard III was his great-uncle.

He paces, nervy perhaps, even nervous, but not irritably or fretfully. Still the ultra-competive sportsman (‘Tournaments aren’t what they used to be: no one gets hurt any more’,). Rather, we see a tender side to him, not insensitivity; perhaps, as the wrath that will have accompanied the break with Rome, the seizure and/or demolition of church property, the run of executions of former favourites such as Thomas More (alluded to but not featured in this play), are not yet – albeit soon – to break forth.

Meanwhile now he is even puzzled, bizarrely, amusingly naive: ‘But if I were Head of the Church, to whom would I appeal for my divorce?’ Anne has her own view of her predecessor: ‘that woman from Aragon, the one that cannot litter’. Catherine had in fact borne six or more children mostly dead at birth or in infancy. 

True, we are treated to the gradual humiliation of Jeremy Heynes’ Cardinal Wolsey, pompous, grandiose (‘I’ll not fall like Lucifer’) but now confused: that, after all, is history too.  


Jeremy Heynes as Cardinal Wolsey

Heynes, now its elder statesman, has remained for quite a time a Loft star, like the great, endlessly versatile Phil Reynolds: both actors whose prodigious talents have long cried out for the professional stage. Now he tends to get the doddery old roles. Who else but Firs, in The Cherry Orchard (previously the amiable, shambling, well-meaning Simeonov-Pischik)?

But add Andrew Aguecheek (2002), and Orsino prior to that, Einstein (Dürrenmatt’s The Physicists), the blinded Gloucester to John Hathaway’s Lear, Joseph II in Amadeus, and a feast of character roles before those (Albert Finney’s ‘Sir’ in The Dresser), and one gets closer to the sheer range of his mastery. I wish I could have seen him play King Lear, or Oberon, or Titus Andronicus. But these days, traditions are changing. Why not Hamlet, Henry V; and if King John could be played at the RSC – stunningly – by a girl, maybe Imogen, or St. Joan??

This Henry VIII has a profound affection for Julia Findlay’s mousy, beautifully engaging and attractive Anne. Who could be surprised? She wins us from the start, when she appears with the mysterious (or perhaps marginally obvious) bag. And she never loses us.  

Unlike our probable expectations, Anne is already in her thirties. Here, she could have been eighteen. She flirts, but not unduly. She has a sharp wit, a cunning intelligence, considerable maturity, and an ability to manoeuvre in court where it is needed. She seems, feels, looks, like the real thing. Only at the end, when Henry casually nods to her servant Jane Seymour, do we get a glimpse of impending danger. 

Far more importantly, she displays wisdom, and individuality. Technically her offence is religious. Henry finds out that she has been taking to the woods, or a clearing occupied by peasants, to meet with Tyndale, concealed in a kind of Robin Hood manner (Rod Wilkinson, a very commanding performance, his intellect undoubted, free of religiosity, speaking with a sort of Oxfordshire brogue): the excommunicated translator– an offence so gross that, since John Wycliffe’s attempt, it could make even avid or secretive readers subject to the death penalty. Why on earth: so that the monastery-educated, Latin-privileged few might make it their preserve alone? 

tyndale and anne

Rod Wilkinson as William Tyndale, the courageous translator of the Bible into English, who while hiding among humble country folk is visited in secret by Anne

But Tyndale also opposed the divorce of Henry from Catherine of Aragon. There are ironies here. Presciently Tyndale believed religion should answer not to Rome, but to the monarch. Henry VIII, within a couple of years, would embrace exactly this formula; and Miles Coverdale would be commissioned, by both Canterbury and the crown, to produce just such a translation, into which hefty segments of Tyndale’s work were incorporated.

All this literally a year before the latter was executed at the instancing of the vehemently Catholic Charles V. Worse irony still, the new version was printed in Antwerp, precisely where Tyndale was arrested, and close to where, in Belgium, then Flanders, he was garrotted as a heretic.    

Tyndale’s version would also play a large part in the 1611 English Authorised Version commissioned by James I. Brenton takes his starting point here. That is why we get three, perhaps four, visits to the fizzing court of the bizarre, impulsive, unsuppressable first Stuart king: the exhaustingly brilliant Pete Meredith, in what appears to be only his fourth appearance at the Loft.

 Prince Hal (surprising?) in a play Jack Falstaff, and also merely the company/ensemble in their previous Anne Boleyn, to which add the amazingly daring – and tragic - teen sexual experimentation play, Spring Awakening (Frühlings Erwachen) by Frank Wedekind (1891).


Pete Meredith as the first Stuart king, James

But perhaps one role that may have prepared Meredith for his extraordinary, indeed dazzling, turn as James VI is his appearance as Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, in (I assume) Mark Rylance’s 2007 play I am Shakespeare, a comedy in which the variegated central role almost matches Rhys Ifans in the celebrated film Anonymous.

Meredith’s comic talent took this Anne Boleyn. Show-stealing? Not really, it’s in the script. For outrageousness he all but outshone Billy Connolly, so over the top was it: hilarious, brash, sensual yet suddenly, momentarily, serious. An in yer face  monarch, unashamedly gay, notoriously randy and carrying on with a for some reason hesitant favourite, by then 21 year old George Villiers (later Duke of Buckingham; the dalliance here is slightly anachronistic – ‘He is my sweet child’ sounds more like 17).

 Here, James McCabe, (a new Loft recruit), not entirely a fanciable prettyboy but game to play along, and later a doomed favourite of Charles I.

King (Queen) James is obsessively active, unable to settle, full of wild (inventive) gestures, blazing eyed, wriggling hands, shifting endlessly in vocal pace and mood, giggling and cackling at his own jokes, flippantly crossing knees, cajoling, skittling around, leaping with excitement, joyously indecent (‘My balls are as hard as peas’; ‘She might as well have pissed on the baby’; I plied the rod on their buttocks’); shamelessly plying the audience: a riot of a performance, easily worthy of the Stratford RSC. Shockingly stupendous. An absolute hoot.

The costumes were absolutely stunning (a threesome: Helen Brady, Helen Jellicoe, Alyson Morris). Even the male servants were dazzlingly dressed, occasionally necessitating a quick change. And three musicians, again a smart change as they swapped Tudor for Stuart. Mark Roberts’ Henry not overdressed – but then from portraits he wasn’t always so.

 Anne frequently appearing in a ravishing near-scarlet, as if to suggest her impending end. James an absolute flurry of (mainly, almost Puritanical), black: but not without silver - bejewelled, earringed - an alluring design to offset his feyer moments.

Wolsey – and indeed the clutch of bishops, led by grumpy Dean (actually Bishop) Lancelot Andrewes – all sunk into blazing scarlet, And Thomas Cromwell’s garb seemingly evolving by stages from plain (but never humble) clerk’s undergraduate-like attire into his own expanding red tinges to indicate his advance in favour.

tudor setting

Thomas Cromwell (Dave Crossfield), Henry VIII (Mark Roberts), Anne Boleyn (Julia Findlay) and Cardinal Wolsey (Jeremy Heynes) bring Tudor characters to life out of the theatre

Indeed Cromwell must be seen as one of Dave Crossfield’s finest hours. He has indeed shone in many a Loft production – indeed played the cruel, grisly John Hale, unleasher of the witch hunt in The Crucible, a suitably nasty preparation for his scheming, volte-face Cromwell. Even in smaller (sympathetic) roles he has deployed his talent to advantage the whole (All My Sons, Arthur Miller again).

Here Cromwell is omnipresent, a sinister accompaniment to numerous scenes, and when not figuring himself, relying (as Walsingham had for Elizabeth) on his network of spies in every household (‘Do you think I don’t have spies watching the stables?’ ‘Those that claim to be God’s instruments never are.’).

 Nothing is too gross for Cromwell, torture a mere instrument of extracting information: a convenient but ominous databank, to be used against - whoever. Sly and slinky, paradoxically pumped up into a towering, long unassailable figure politically, this was a finely conceived and enacted performance. How we hated him.

Hence it was Cromwell, not the seemingly affable though potentially dangerous Henry (Roberts), who lays into Anne’s sister-in-law, Lady Rochford (Jane Boleyn), protectress (to a degree) and effectively Anne’s wholly loyal chief Lady in Waiting.

Zoe Mortimer’s Rochford was another of this impressive team; sensitive to Anne’s shifting needs; utterly supportive; resistant to oppression, firm with but not bullying her assistant ladies, finally cowed but still brazening it out as far as she can. She earned our affection as well as our respect.

There were as many as four of these female acolytes in this staging: Miranda Brabban, Madaleine Coleman, Ann O’Connor, Beth Woolley. They did what they had to do: waited. Personalities varied. Occasionally a bit too demure – but then how could it be otherwise in this secretive, whispering, tension-filled court? Henry might seem amiable enough, but many of those surrounding him were not good news.  

It was perhaps bad luck for the Loft’s potentially impressive Chris Stanford (Robert Cecil) that Brenton seems to have felt he couldn’t have two villains of the piece. Cecil’s father, Sir William, was more than a fixer and cautious adviser to Elizabeth I, and before Elizabeth’s death wormed young Robert into the succession. Although he would die while still in his forties, Robert was a master schemer, sometimes diplomatic, often not. Here Stanford made him a watchful, indeed dutiful albeit rather subordinated figure: tricky to make a major impact, yet he looked as if he could have done, permitted the space.


Chitter-chatter - Michael Seeley (Simpkin) and Nick Doughlin (Sloop) as a splendidly unreliable pair of servants

However there were some impudently inspired performances from two of the manservants. Nick Doughlin began as a meek dogsbody, but then electrified into a vivid personality: cheeky, buoyant, gleeful, even explosive. This registered his second appearance at the Loft as a minor masterpiece. They should use him again, for he is clearly capable of bigger roles.

Star of this background cast was Michael Seeley, with a sheaf of Loft events behind him – Lear’s Fool (2005), a massive and crucial role, a real test of speech and invention – and Volpone elsewhere. Here, Seeley supplied a joyous mix of impish and deferential, completely abreast of all the two courts’ moods, tolerant but not uncensorious of James I’s excesses, capable of being wryly amused, and even more capable of playing the audience along. A super performance, a wicked wit, still a wag himself.  

Nobody had a chance against Meredith’s weirdo, but malleable, James I. And it is he who supplies, as it were, the explanation of the whole play. For it is he, upon suggestion, who settles – upon the urging not least of an authoritative Lancelot Andrewes (Maurice Smith), highly imposing as by then the Bishop of Winchester, who in an amusing exchange teams up with opponent the Puritan Dr. John Reynolds or Rainolds (Mark Pearce) and other clerics, in pushing or the creation of arguably the most influential text in the English Language: the Authorised, or King James, bible, of which Reynolds, who died four years before its publication, was part translator.

For all those who died in pursuit of this desperately needed freedom, Brenton’s intelligent linking here between the early 1500s Tyndale and the successful outcome of 1611, such a dramatic turnaround (although the Coverdale is, I suspect, oddly not mentioned), this linkage across the years is a kind of homage.

The fact that Julia Findlay’s delicious, indeed wondrously touching Anne is caught up in religious intrigue as much as fatal court plotting makes Brenton’s inventive, sinuous, powerfully original text stand out from so many of the other Henry VIII/Anne Boleyn plays and films. He offers a new take and wholly fresh emphasis on an old story and is all the more valuable for That.

That the Loft manage, in depth, to do such justice to not just the general outline and flow but so many minute and subtle details is itself a tribute to a great company. Director Tara L. Lacey’s achievement with this – it was she who suggested this bracing play in the first place and made a very acceptable job of it - was palpably a coup, indeed a success of the highest attainment. How gratifying that standards at the Loft remain undimmed.

Roderic Dunnett


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