“With her head tucked underneath her arm,” ran the old music hall song, and Howard Brenton’s muscular new history play begins with Miranda Raison pointing at a bloody bag and asking us, “Do you want to see it?”
She eventually reveals the legendary bonce but first teases us by whipping out the Bible that put her in the Tower – the heretical, Lutheran version by the West Country scholar William Tyndale that she championed.
And then, oddly, King James VI of Scotland, and First of England, minces hilariously into view with a rail of stunning frocks owned by his predecessor on the throne, Queen Elizabeth, daughter of Anne Boleyn, or, as he calls, her “the Boleyn witch.”
The play unravels backwards to the start of Henry VIII’s wooing of the French-educated Anne at a court masque, where Anne adopts the morality role of “Perseverance” and holds the fascinated suitor at bay; until the interval, when she declares that seven years is long enough to have waited and that she and King Hal will nip backstage for a fifteen-minute quickie.
This is gracefully, wittily played by Raison, who was holding herself impressively in check in the same role in the Globe’s sinewy revival of Shakespeare’s (and Fletcher’s) King Henry VIII earlier in the season.
But this time round we have a new Henry in Anthony Howell’s lithe, attractive and impetuous young monarch; and a new Wolsey in Colin Hurley’s roly-poly red cardinal, with an echo of his great Shakespearean speeches (“I feel all my greatness flowing from me”).
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. It’s a matter of fact that although the Tyndale Bible was replaced by the “King James” version, it was, in effect, much the same book.
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.