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Review Round-up: Did Brenton Boleyn Convince?

By • West End
Sitting alongside the traditional Shakespearean stalwarts in the Globe’s summer season is Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn. The life of Henry VIII’s second wife is of course familiar, but Brenton’s interpretation of it is new.

Brenton’s Anne is daring and politically astute. Played by Miranda Raison (of Spooks and Married Single Other fame), she is shown to be a key player in both affairs of the court and of the heart. Told through a non-linear chronology, Anne Boleyn is the story of a woman who is not afraid to confront danger.

Directed by John Dove (who also directed Brenton’s In Extremis in 2006/07), the production opened at the Globe on 24 July and runs until 21 August.

With the volatile relationships of the play matched with the unpredictable setting of the Globe, does Anne Boleyn convince the critics?


  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - “Brenton not only wants to run up a flag for Anne Boleyn, he wants to re-assess history in a series of political manoeuvres with Anne at their centre, in her vision of a new England, and of a new religion… This is hard stuff to dramatise, but Brenton and his director, John Dove, keep the stage alive with the crackle of debate, court spy action in parallel eras, some elegant musical and group staging, and a gallery of fascinating characters including John Dougall’s Thomas Cromwell, Peter Hamilton Dyer’s Tyndale, Amanda Lawrence’s abused Lady Rochford and, above all, James Garnon’s remarkable King James, a hyperventilating poseur with an eye for a good costume and a pretty youth.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - "As you might expect, Howard Brenton's new play about Anne Boleyn is no mere picturesque romp on the lines of TV's The Tudors. In fact, it's a radically revisionist work that argues that Anne was more Protestant martyr than sexual predator. It both challenges received wisdom and bulges with theatrical vitality… I can't help feeling that Brenton slightly overplays his admiration for Anne in suggesting that she was responsible not merely for the Reformation but, in part, for the existence of the King James Bible. But he gets away from the pop image of Anne as the doomed siren to show her as a resolute, deeply religious woman who deployed her sexual power to become a 'conspirator for Christ'… Academics may pounce on Brenton's play, but it eschews mock-Tudor costume drama to offer a compelling portrait of a woman contentiously described by James I as 'the whore who changed England'."
  • Ian Shuttleworth in the Financial Times (four stars) - "James Garnon’s James is at first a comic figure, vulgar and sporting an arsenal of nervous tics, but in the conference scenes he shows himself to be an astute politician and manipulator. It is a combination of styles that works well at the Globe, and one I think Brenton has learnt through his earlier experience here. Globe audiences are prepared to take serious matters seriously, but they do require more leavening with humour than usual. This is not the same play that Brenton would have written for, say, the Almeida… The play ends perfunctorily and tritely (even more so in performance than in the published text), but the journey to that point is a compelling one."
  • Libby Purves in The Times (four stars) - "Historians will argue over Brenton’s interpretations of Boleyn: this Anne is no adventuress, hypocrite or pawn. She is a brilliant, confident, sexy young woman who holds the King off for years but genuinely loves him… James Garnon seems, at first, worryingly keen to play the role as Billy Connolly, and there is more entertainment than point in his interlude of homoerotic gallivanting in the dead Queen’s coronation dress. But as the play develops, his fascination with Boleyn’s ghost and his robust way with bishops won me round entirely."
  • Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph (four stars) - "You could call it a cheeky answer to Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. It aspires to the Bard’s poetic touch, though, as well as his wit. At its core, it shows us a man and a woman in love whose mutuality will be ripped asunder by the merciless requirements of monarchical heredity. And yet it argues for Anne’s story to be read not as textbook tragedy but as something far more uplifting… There is, yes, a surfeit of ambition here. Like some elaborate, groaning pastry at a Tudor feast, Brenton crams not one but two eras into his hurly-burly entertainment… It only just hangs together. The performances, though, in John Dove’s ebullient, zesty production keep your eye off the flaws, moving between periods and serving the switches between arch politicking and Blackadder-ish flourishes with equal aplomb. Brenton, one suspects, fell in love with his subject - and it’s hard not to do so before Miranda Raison’s radiant, intelligent, beautiful Anne."

    - Helena Rampley


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