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'Henry VIII' review — Tudor history and contemporary gender politics collide

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Six the Musical informs every moment of Amy Hodge’s adventurous production for Shakespeare’s Globe of the history play about the onetime monarch who made that sleeper London and Broadway hit possible: the much-married, famously rotund Henry VIII whose treatment at the hands of Shakespeare and his late-career collaborator John Fletcher remains one of the Bard’s least-performed plays.

Up till now, I have mostly associated this play with various pageant-heavy productions for the RSC and a 2012 Spanish staging as part of the Globe’s legendary international festival of 37 productions of the Bard in as many languages.

Since then, the Globe has gone on to produce the all-female Morgan Lloyd Malcolm play Emilia, which transferred to the West End and whose renegade, empowering spirit conjoins with Six to flip this peculiar text on its head.

Instead of the series of talking tableaux vivants that remains a risk with Henry VIII, Hodge offers up a considerably cut, visually anarchic take that couples some rather risqué props (a gigantic gold phallus in keeping, I suppose, with the priapic aspirations of this serious egoist), alongside fresh material from the writer Hannah Khalil to ramp up and reorder its gender politics.

The interpolations give off the feel of a game show-in-the-making as one clocks appropriations from better-known plays that largely serve to remind us of the textual limitations of this particular one. It’s not fair to the linguistic falling-off of Henry VIII to be fed a snippet from, among other titles, Richard II (“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me”), which represents Shakespeare at his most luxuriant.

Some folksy original music from co-composers Tom Deering and Maimuna Memon gives off the vibes of a gig, especially once the clarion-voiced Genevieve Dawson steps down from the stage to stroll, minstrel-like, amongst the yard.

The intention is to foreground the trio of the discarded Katharine of Aragon (the Spanish actress Bea Segura, in impassioned form throughout) and her replacement in Henry’s sequence of spouses, Anne Boleyn (here called Bullen) who gives birth to Elizabeth I in an uncompromising scene that, for some reason, elicited laughter at the performance caught: Janet Etuk makes the part immediately vivid, even when dealing with various outsized props of her own: a large purple teddy bear, for one.

These two women, familiar from the original text, find a third kindred spirit in the added presence of Henry and Katharine’s daughter Mary (Natasha Cottriall), who was subject to the capricious treatment characteristic of Henry during his 38-year reign and here informs us of “the right of inheritance” amidst an age in which women had precious few rights.

A supporting player in the drama that bears his name, Adam Gillen’s king is seen throughout as an intemperate, self-absorbed manchild whose exhibitionist tendencies – at one point he strips to his undies – coexist with a cruel streak. (Far from the portly figure of Holbein renown, this Henry would seem to have spent considerable time at the gym.)

Displaying notably firm vocal command of this acoustically difficult space, Gillen places Henry on the spectrum of the disordered-personality outlier that he played so beautifully in the National’s recent Amadeus, except that Mozart was possessed of a genius unavailable to a masturbatory monarch whose throne flips round at one point to become a toilet.

One young spectator beamed visibly after receiving an impromptu hug from the performer in the yard: quite what that same lad’s parents made of prop cannons orgasmically firing confetti into the audience is anyone’s guess.

The first act takes a while to crank into gear, and Hodge doesn’t always accommodate some of the show’s visual riffs (the purple-hued costumes allow for both Tudor details and the contemporary catwalk) to a cast who rarely seem to inhabit the same play.

Several of the men are so underpowered that they barely register, and Jamie Ballard’s red-cloaked Wolsey – emerging himself bare-chested in passing – doesn’t come easily by the Iago-like complicity attempted with the audience: his best moment is a ruminative speech late on that specifically invokes the “seven ages of man” soliloquy from As You Like It.

Jonah Russell’s hapless, hoarse-sounding Buckingham emerges bloodied from beneath the stage floor, while the First and Second Gentlemen of the text are here a gender-flipped chorus perched on inflatable chairs in the middle of the yard until they are in their way dethroned.

The closing passage allows for the celebratory emergence into history of Elizabeth I that chimes with the imminent celebrations just now surrounding Elizabeth II. At the same time, talk of “a fickle unwavering nation” led by a heedless, devil-may-care leader strikes undeniable resonances just now.

It’s worth remembering that this is the very play that in 1613 suffered an accident with a cannon that led to the Globe burning down. That grievous precedent was likely ignored by a festive-seeming audience rightly cheering the feminist close to a staging whose polemical shifts would surely raise the roof – if, that is, this ever-adaptable playhouse still had a roof to raise.

Henry VIII is at Shakespeare's Globe to 21 October. Book Henry VIII tickets on London Theatre.

Photo credit: Adam Gillen in Henry VIII (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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