The second play in this year's season at Shakespeare's Globe is the rarely produced 'Henry VIII'. Known originally as 'All Is true', the play is believed to have been a collaboration by Shakespeare and another writer, John Fletcher.
In one very peculiar way, 'Henry VIII' is particularly noteworthy. It was during a performance of it on the 29th of June 1613 that a canon shot used as a special effect ignited the thatch on the roof resulting in the entire building burning to the ground. Interestingly, no canon were in evidence during this latest production. Well, no point in tempting fate is there? In any case, technology protects the modern Globe in ways even the inventive Shakespeare and his fellow writers could not have imagined.
The play is not so much a logical chronicle of Henry's entire reign, but a glimpse of selected events or set pieces, some of which are not in true chronological order. Only two of Henry's 6 wives are in evidence: Henry's first and longest serving wife, Catherine (or Katherine) of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn (here pronounced Bullen). In fact, we don't actually see very much of Anne, though she is Queen by the end of the play and its the spectacular christening of Anne's daughter Elizabeth which provides the denouement.
Angela Davies's design defines public and private areas by means of carpets and corridors created at the back of the stage. The simple effect enables us to glimpse the on-going intrigue and wranglings both as enacted in court and in more private discussions.
Dominic Rowan's Henry is no bloated, chicken-leg-hurling monarch. Rowan's Henry is intelligent, confident and athletic – we even see him playing real tennis, which apparently was another obsession. But the laurels in the acting department really have to go to Kate Duchêne as Katherine. As it becomes obvious that she's lost her husband, Ms Duchêne produces a heart-rending and highly compelling performance embodying the despair of a woman cast adrift in a political sea of intrigue, whose only crime is that she is unable to deliver what Henry craves most – a son to inherit his Kingdom.
'Henry VIII' presents rather a stark contrast to 'Macbeth', the first play in the Globe's Kings and Rogues season. Blood, gore and evil figured largely in 'Macbeth', but here the focus is on politics, intrigue and Henry's obsessive desire to secure a male heir. History fans will no doubt argue about the accuracy of the chronology, and those who were anticipating the full 'six wives' treatment will miss the beheadings and further intrigue in matters of the heart. But the play could never really have opted to deliver all that transpired in Henry's long reign. And, more importantly for Shakespeare and Fletcher, it might not have made political sense for them to even attempt it.
There are a considerable number of characters in 'Henry VIII' and, coupled with the fact that few of us know the play very well, it demands rather more concentration to avoid confusion and understand the events. However, it's a rare treat to have the chance to see the play, and though it's not as exciting as other better known Shakespearian works, it's certainly interesting and worth a visit if only for Kate Duchêne's exceptional performance as Katherine.
"As a collaborative venture between Shakespeare and Fletcher, the play lacks stylistic unity. But at least Mark Rosenblatt gives us a cogent account of this relative rarity, marred only by one or two touches of stylistic fussiness."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Sparks of real dramatic conflict are few and far between...It all makes for a repetitive piece that rarely grips, but director Mark Rosenblatt undoubtedly makes the best of a bad job."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"The play is a frustratingly centrifugal affair, with scenes sparking into fitful life and then fizzling away."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Stanadard
"Sprightly, intelligent production."
Sarah Hemming for Financial Times
"A stodgy and timid play."
Ben Dowell for The Stage
"It’s no Hamlet. It sprawls, it circumnavigates, it gets bogged down. Which makes Mark Rosenblatt’s production such a delightful surprise. Buyer must still beware a plot both tangled and languid, as Henry divorces Katherine, then marries Anne Boleyn while around him the noblemen vie for power. But within that Rosenblatt and his fine cast bring out copious quantities of emotion and humour."
Dominic Maxwell for The Times