It somehow seems appropriate that the Globe's production of one of Shakespeare's final plays takes place as the new government takes a scalpel to vast areas of public spending. Public extravagance (and the means to pay) is a central theme of Henry VIII.
Of course, the main theme of the play concerns the power struggle as Henry tries to divorce his first wife Katherine in his desperate quest for a male heir. Although it was written in the reign of James VI, the not-so subtle subtext of the piece is Shakespeare’s own homage to Queen Elizabeth, as exemplified by Cranmer’s prophetic speech at the end. The joint authorship of the piece by Shakespeare and John Fletcher is probably another reason for the patchiness of the plot – it certainly lacks the flow of the earlier history plays.
There’s plenty of pageantry and much attention to detail: director Mark Rosenblatt and designer Angela Davies draw heavily on representations of this period – Holbein's famous picture of the ambassadors must have been a major influence and at the end Dominic Rowan's Henry stands, legs defiant, in the mirror image of Holbein's even more famous portrait.
Structurally, the play is very much a succession of historical vignettes; there’s little of the character development of some of the earlier histories. And Rosenblatt has made the reasonable decision to concentrate on the spectacle.
What’s lacking is the humanity of Katherine, Henry’s discarded queen. One of the most sympathetic characters in the piece, Kate Duchene’s rather bizarre accent detracts from her plight and her unrestrained screaming in her final scene seems to have come more from a horror movie than a historical drama.
Rowan's Henry exudes masculinity and playfulness – we first glimpse him playing tennis. It’s a surprisingly human portrait, there's little sign of the cruelty and brutality that characterised the latter part of his reign. It’s a touching portrayal of man, still half in love with his wife, yet also torn between lust for Anne Boleyn and his need to produce a male heir.
There are some strong supporting performances: there's an affecting Buckingham from Anthony Howell going to his death with grace, a manipulative Wolsey from Ian McNeice, calmly accepting his downfall, while much of the laughs are from Michael Bertenshaw’s camp Thomas Lovell.
There’s some stirring music from Nigel Hess, but that only seeks to mask the holes in this drama. It’s interesting to see the play return to its spiritual home – it was during a performance of the play that the original theatre was destroyed by fire – but this play is rarely performed for a reason.