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Review Round-up: Did Sparks Fly at Henry VIII?

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Last week marked the Globe’s first return to Henry VIII in some 397 years. The last production, in 1613, was not a success - a stage cannon set fire to the thatched roof of the original theatre and burned it to the ground. Mercifully this time around, the theatrical fireworks were purely metaphorical.

The play is believed to be co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher and was one of the bard’s final plays to be written and performed.

Mark Rosenblatt takes the helm of this rare revival with a cast that includes Dominic Rowan in the title role, Ian McNeice as Cardinal Wolsey, Kate Duchene as Katherine of Aragon and Miranda Raison as Anne Boleyn. It plays is repertoire at the Globe Theatre until August 21st.

  • Maxwell Cooter Whatsonstage.com (three stars) – “There’s plenty of pageantry and much attention to detail … 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 … Rowan's Henry exudes masculinity and playfulness … 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 some stirring music from Nigel Hess, but that only seeks to mask the holes in this drama … this play is rarely performed for a reason.”
  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (three stars) – "The Tudor costumes - all velvet and ermine and huge codpieces for the randy king - are sumptuous, while the big scenes featuring choirs of schoolchildren singing in Latin and accompanied by blaring wind instruments prove genuinely spectacular… Dominic Rowan, dark rather than red-headed, plays Henry VIII with wit, energy and sudden enlivening moments of menace; Kate Duchêne proves genuinely touching as the unhappy rejected Catherine, and Miranda Raison brings a welcome dash of sex appeal to the fusty proceedings as Anne Boleyn.  Best of all is Ian McNeice’s grotesque Cardinal Wolsey, who hisses out his lines like a poisonous snake and slithers across the stage like a disgustingly plump slug. When he’s on stage, this often inert play comes alive."
  • Fiona Mountford in the Evening Standard (three stars) – “This new production is unlikely to set anything ablaze … It’s hard to ascertain exactly where the focus lies, not least because Henry struggles to be the hero of his own play. Dominic Rowan is one of a number of good actors — Spooks star Miranda Raison as Anne Boleyn is another - stranded in rather thankless parts … As befits such a pageantry-stuffed work, the Globe has been got up to look more lavish than usual, and the addition of a forestage among the groundlings offers a more humanising dimension. Director Mark Rosenblatt adds interiority to scenes through some well-placed tableaux, but I don’t reckon we’ll be seeing this Shakespearean Henry again any time soon.”
  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (three stars) - “So though the production pulls all the stops out in a blaze of mitres, ivory silk, boy choristers in the gallery, and trumpet acclaim for the culminating baptism and Cranmer's prophecy of future national glory, there turns out to have been a cunning optical illusion here that cuts the sequence down to size… Amanda Lawrence's triple whammy of splendid cameos add up to a brilliant bluff-calling device. A snipe-faced Welsh eccentric, she's the lady-in-waiting who disputes Anne Boleyn's pious disavowal of any yearnings to be queen… trim, darkly handsome and enigmatic Dominic Rowan valuably keeps you guessing about the extent to which Henry is a conscious hypocrite in finding reasons of religious conscience for dumping his first wife.”
  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) “As a collaborative venture between Shakespeare and Fletcher, the play lacks stylistic unity… Rosenblatt presents the play as a straightforward Tudor political thriller about the transience of earthly power… The play's tricky opening scene is made more, rather than less, confusing by having puppets embody the encounter of Henry and the French king at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. The modern puppet-fetish also reaches the point of absurdity with a capering Fool who lugs around a marionette supposedly embodying the king's conscience. This is made all the more gratuitous by the fact that Dominic Rowan's Henry is one of the production's outstanding strengths. Avoiding bluff heartiness, Rowan presents us with a Henry who is both impetuous and guilt-stricken.”
  • Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (three stars) “Watching the play it’s clear that the reason it is rarely staged – not just at the Globe, but anywhere – is that its episodic nature and combination of pageantry and politicking can be a sticky prospect. But Mark Rosenblatt’s sprightly, intelligent production tackles it with relish… Rosenblatt and his fine cast emphasise the characters’ self-deception as they pursue what they want: Miranda Raison’s demure, but shrewd Anne Boleyn protesting that she would not want to be queen; Dominic Rowan’s impetuous, moody Henry arguing that it is “conscience” that drives him to divorce. And characters grow in stature when their star has fallen: the Duke of Buckingham, the rejected queen (a touchingly dignified Kate Duchêne) and even Cardinal Wolsey deliver moving speeches once they have been cast down. It still stalls in places and it won’t make the case for the play as a regular fixture. But this intelligent staging might ensure that it is not 397 years before it is staged here again.”
  • Dominic Maxwell in The Times (four stars) “I’ve rarely seen the Globe’s space used better than this. The designer Angela Davies rises to the challenge of a pageantry-rich play with aplomb. A red carpet runs round the rim of the stage; characters, in colourful period costume, share their thoughts on the thrust stage. It’s imposing but intimate... Vulnerable moments shine out through the power play. Miranda Raison’s quiet, alluring Anne Boleyn failing to meet Katherine’s eye. Ian McNeice finally finding humility, though not self-pity, as his Cardinal Wolsey loses power. Rosenblatt’s biggest innovation is a ghostly little puppet that represents the male heir that Henry lacks. It lends an air of longing to all his manouevring… There is strong comic playing from Amanda Lawrence, Michael Bertenshaw and Sam Cox, but the wit never overwhelms. Yes, the episodic structure remains a frustration. Yet Rosenblatt makes it a fascinating journey throughout.”
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