Back for a second run at the Globe is Howard Brenton's deftly-written play about Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn. Last year, this story proved to be extremely popular, principally I suspect because of the inclusion of King James I, excellently played once again by James Garnon. And that may get you wondering about just what the angle is here because James I did not accede to the throne until some 70 years after Anne Boleyn's death. So, how come he finds his way into a play about Queen Anne?
Well in Howard Brenton's view, Anne helped start something off which James also had a keen interest in, and that was the reformation of the church. At one point, James says “Anne, tell me what you began and I will end it”. Now I'm not enough of a history buff to be able to determine to what extent Anne was personally involved in organising the split with Rome and the establishment of the Church of England. However, Henry VIII had to find a means of extricating himself from his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne, and since the Pope was in no mind to grant Henry a divorce, the solution was for England to part from the Catholic church. So you can see Howard Brenton's point, especially as evidence seems to suggest that Anne was a reformer as well as having protestant leanings.
When we first meet Anne Boleyn, she's already dead and carries a bag which we assume contains her head. And indeed it does. But the first thing she shows us is a bible translated by William Tyndale, and it is that which forms the link with James I who finds it later when he is rummaging through his possessions when he has just become king. Once this link has been established, the action ping-pongs between the court of James I, and flashbacks to the court of Henry VIII where he is desperately trying to bed and wed Anne (before she has met her demise, that is).
James Garnon is back in stuttering, twitching form as James I whose mannerisms and sexual proclivities provide considerable mirth. But Mr Garnon doesn't overstep the mark by taking the characterisation into the realms of the absurd, and rightly so. Even though James had several unfortunate physical impediments, he was nonetheless a highly intelligent, well-educated man who was actually no-one's fool. Miranda Raison makes for a beautiful, mischievous Anne with the sense of humour and political nouse to match any man at court. And Julius D'Silva is a rather scary Cromwell - a master manipulator, and ultimately responsible for Anne's downfall after she discovers he has been purloining money from the dissolution of the monasteries.
I enjoyed this well-balanced play the first time round, and there's no dilution of its effect with a second viewing. In fact it seems even better than I remembered with a compelling mix of interesting characters, ironic humour and intelligent drama. If anything, it's more vital and fluid than before and the actors even more confident, perhaps thanks to the successful run they have already enjoyed.
You don't need to worry about getting bogged-down in history here. Howard Brenton's story is well-told and easy to follow and there are plenty of instantly recognisable and irresistible characters – Cromwell, Wolsey and Henry VIII, as well as Anne herself. Overall its immensely enjoyable and well-worth seeing if you missed it the first time round.