Howard Brenton’s richly enjoyable epic won last year’s Whatsonstage.com Best New Play Award and fully deserves its revival at the Globe, where the story of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII’s second wife and key figure in the Reformation, is unravelled with spring and verve.
John Dove’s production returns with most of the leading players reprising their roles, notably Miranda Raison as the headless Queen, teasing us with her bonce in a bloody bag and brandishing the Tyndale bible which was adapted by King James into his version.
Brenton brings Anne into fictional collision with James Garnon’s Eddie Izzard lookalike King James at the end – Garnon’s still remarkable performance is much modified, more subdued than last year – in a wonderful clinching scene of recognition and adieu.
His predecessor on the throne of England was Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth, so the play works as both an exposition of the cradle of our culture in Shakespeare’s age, and a sharp Brechtian analysis of the political and religious forces at play, notably in the powerful performances of Colin Hurley as an earth-larding Cardinal Wolsey and – new to the cast – Julius D'Silva as a superbly fleshed-out Thomas Cromwell, devious and straight-talking.
Cromwell recognises the valour of the woman he finally destroys: "She looked straight at you and wasn’t scared; what man could cope with that?" And Raison plays this heroism to perfection, liberated in death to emphasise further her physical spirit and intellectual independence. She is both devilish and delightful, addressing us as her demons in the future life, unquenchable in her own story.
It all makes for an exemplary historical play which avoids the pitfalls of costume drama thanks to both Dove’s staging and Brenton’s characteristically punchy and vivid dialogue. Peter Hamilton Dyer repeats his bucolically accented William Tyndale and Sophie Duval makes a fine florid fist of the abused Lady Rochford.