Historical fiction – and that definition of course includes plays – has one great advantage over academic biography. It can play with time, place, motive and characterisation to match the author’s own agenda. Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn was written for Shakespeare’s Globe in 2010 and John Dove’s production is now revived for a national tour in association with English Touring Theatre.
The tercentenary of the King James Bible was last year and, like many such commemorations, seems now to be very much in the past. So the story overlaps in Brenton’s play between Anne Boleyn’s awareness of the version by William Tyndale and that commissioned by her daughter’s successor take a little time to assimilate.
James Garnon plays James VI a& I, with bodily as well as vocal twitches and stutters, but always lets us see the sharp mind of a born survivor under this grotesque surface. Jo Herbert’s Anne is passionate and playful but for me seemed to lack any projection of that playing with fire and overall charisma which first captured David Sturzaker’s Henry VIII, held him in thrall for seven years – and then lost him (with her life) in three.
The majority of theatres to which this production tours are conventional, proscenium arch ones. For all the cast’s pre-show mingling with the audience and the traditional dance which ends the proceedings, there is a sort of invisible barrier which such buildings can impose between stage and audience. This play is good theatre in its own right but, for me, it doesn’t breach that fourth wall.