The play is set in two eras. In the early Jacobean period the twitching, stuttering and defiantly off-message James I (an attractive performance from James Garon) is newly arrived London. He is much exercised by the religious disputes of the day (at one point he says he longs for a country “everyone in church on their knees without really knowing why”). After finding Anne Boleyn’s copy of William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible he goes in search of her ghost with his latest conquest, George Villiers, his curiosity piqued. We also see the familiar story of Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall at Henry VIII’s court: from the refusal of sexual relations until shortly before the marriage (“After five years, Mistress, a little further than the knee?” begs Henry at one point) to the brutal downfall engineered by Thomas Cromwell. Brenton’s twist is to make Anne a Protestant “conspirator for Christ” who meets Tyndale and his followers and seeks with Cromwell to set Henry and England on the path to the new religion. Jo Herbert’s performance as the second Queen, aware of her sexual power, committed to her faith, is an entirely convincing portrayal of a tragic heroine.
Along the way we learn about Tudor methods of contraception and torture, sit in on linguistic disputes between Anglicans and Puritans over James’ new Bible, see another nail hammered into the coffin of Sir Thomas More’s reputation and get the best interval laughter line I’ve heard for some time. The atmosphere of fear is palpable: the surveillance state, the injustice, the violence of the powerful and the powerlessness of all but a few, the destruction of those who once destroyed others are all vividly conveyed; comparisons with 20th century dictatorships inevitably come to mind. There are sharp and witty depictions of some of the major figures of both eras: Thomas Wolsey, Cromwell, Robert Cecil, Lancelot Andrews and the two kings all come to life.
With David Hare’s South Downs and David Edgar’s Written on the Heart adding distinction to the West End and Brenton’s play delighting audiences across the country, it is clear that the generation of writers who started writing in the late sixties and early seventies still have a lot of good writing, intellectual ambition and political passion left in them.