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Henry VIII

a Drama
by William Shakespeare

COMPANY : The New American Shakespeare Tavern [WEBSITE]
VENUE : The New American Shakespeare Tavern [WEBSITE]
ID# 3819

SHOWING : September 12, 2010 - October 24, 2010



Shakespeare’s History saga continues. Here we get to know Henry VIII as a virile young man bouncing between his loyal wife Catherine of Aragon and other women in his court. Full of grand pageantry, watch the coronation of Anne Boleyn and the christening of Elizabeth and listen to the famous speeches the noble Duke of Buckingham, the deceitful Cardinal Wolsey and Queen Catherine give as they all fall from grace.

Historical Note: During a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, a stage-cannon was fired which caused the thatched roof to catch fire and Shakespeare’s theatre burnt to the ground.

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Pageantry Lite
by Dedalus
Friday, October 22, 2010
Leaving aside its historical significance (responsible for the burning of the Globe), its propaganda significance (The Tudor Dynasty forever!), and its contemporary rarity of performance, “Henry VIII” is an anomaly among Shakespeare’s history plays, featuring no on-stage combat, no “lower class” comic-relief interludes, and precious little character development. It is, in essence, a play of spectacle, a Tudor excuse to put Tudor magnificence on display for public consumption. Consisting of scenes of pageantry and pomp after scenes of pomp and pageantry, it can be a slow slog for the modern playgoer more accustomed to the Tavern’s usual high-body count and low-brow hi-jinks.

Unfortunately, the static blocking that usually works so well to force our attention on the characters and the language here only highlight the dearth of drama, and the “pageantry lite” aspect of this particular production.

In the space of a few hours, we are treated to the machinations of Cardinal Woolsey (an as-expected wonderful Tony Brown) as he first removes the Duke of Buckingham from royal favor, then the Queen herself, before finally being hoist on his own petard and ending his life in exile from the court. In the meantime, the randy royal himself has cast his wandering eye on the shyly winsome Anne Boleyn, and a few historical fast-forwards later, we are celebrating the birth of the Princess Elizabeth, accompanied by one of the most fawning-to-those-in-power over-the-top paeans of praise ever written:

For heaven now bids me; and the words I utter
Let none think flattery, for they’ll find ‘em truth.
This royal infant – heaven still move about her! –
Though in her cradle, yet now promises
Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings,
Which time shall bring to ripeness. She shall be –
But few now living can behold that goodness –
A pattern to all princes living with her,
And all that shall succeed.

The speaker (Maurice Ralston’s Archbishop Cranmer) goes on to “predict” all the accomplishments of Elizabeth’s reign, as only hindsight can get it right. When one considers the upheaval that came after the birth of another FEMALE heir, this sequence is especially amusingly ironic (if not downright galling).

Thank goodness, the Tavern has chosen to put this play in repertory with Maxwell Anderson’s “Anne of a Thousand Days” (more on that next week) just to remind us that the story did not have the blissfully happy ending that Shakespeare (and John Fletcher, his purported apprentice whose contribution to the script is still very much in debate) gives it.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a great deal to admire and appreciate in this production. In addition to Mr. Brown’s Cardinal Woolsey and Mr. Ralston’s Cranmer, we’re also treated to wonderful performances by Troy Willis as King Henry, Doug Kaye as the cautious Norfolk, and Laura Cole as the discarded Queen Katherine (I have no idea what that accent was coming from her, but it never interfered with her clarity and it did set her apart from the more British characters). If Mary Russell’s Anne Boleyn is a tad forgettable, well, it’s a greatly underwritten part (only a few “Let me stand and look pretty and modest” scenes of negligible import). We’ll see how she develops the role for the Anderson play.

The play is also not completely without drama. Queen Katherine’s trial and the final confrontation with Woolsey are especially memorable and compelling. However, the play is without “armed conflict” and low on humor. And, considering the smaller playing area and limited ensemble size, the scenes of pageantry are regrettable ordinary, no different from the other History Plays that have seen life on this stage. The costumes, of course, are beautiful, but, again, no more beautiful than anything we’ve seen before. In other words, what should have been breathtakingly over-the-top spectacle-wise came across as too-low-a-key been-there seen-that stand-and-talk static recitation. In a play focused so on the grandeur and triumph of the Tudor Dynasty, the characters came across as no different, no grander than the earlier Plantagenets or Yorks.

So, we’re left with the sense that Shakespeare’s star was fading rather than blazing out, that praising his late patroness and her successor was more urgent than telling a “ripping yarn,” and that willful suppression of some unpleasant historical details is the better part of “kissing up” to the new king.

And we’re left with a feeling that, yes, we’re seeing wonderful work from those we expect it, but we’re also seeing WHY this play is rarely mounted these days. Shakespeare (or Fletcher) no doubt anticipated this response, as the Epilogue is heard to say:

‘Tis ten to one this play can never please
All that are here. …

Indeed, I suppose it is “ill hap” if all the best men “hold when their ladies bid ‘em clap.” Still, the history of the Tudors continues to fascinate, and the proof will be in next week’s telling of “Anne of a Thousand Days.” Why do I suspect this one will not have such a happy ending?

-- Brad Rudy (

Heads will (not) roll!
by Lady Mac
Thursday, September 23, 2010
“Henry VIII,” the rarely performed Shakespeare history play (with a very sanitized portrayal of the British monarch), is one of the final few works that the Shakespeare Tavern is performing to achieve the lofty goal of completing the Shakespeare canon. If you don’t take advantage of this chance to see it at the Tavern, there’s a pretty good chance that you won’t get another opportunity anytime soon.

Whether you should go see it depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for heart-stopping, action-packed thrills and chills, well… I am not even sure if I saw a sword on stage in this one. What it does have are some exquisite costumes and some outstanding performances from actors who realize that the power of their portrayals is essential to carry this play.

Troy Willis is a little eerie. In the masterfully rendered royal garb, complete with the fur-rimmed hat, he bears a spooky resemblance to the title character. As usual, he does a fine job of acting, too, but honesty compels me to report that Shakespeare and John Fletcher (his co-writer on this play) don’t really call on him to do much. He swoons a couple of times, looks sad a couple of times and loses his cool a couple of times – but overall he is a somewhat bland, colorless character beneath the opulent attire.

The real star of this play is Katherine of Aragon, the wronged first wife, whom Shakespeare manages to deify without implying that Henry’s discarding of her is a flaw on his part. (In fact, the story goes that Shakespeare wrote this play after Queen Elizabeth’s death and basically was kissing up to the royalty by glossing over all the king’s “peccadilloes.”) Indeed, Katherine herself – while defending herself before the villainous Cardinal Wolsey and even while dying in exile – makes a point of mentioning that she still loves her husband and prays for him. Either she was a saint or this is a somewhat ridiculous stretching of the truth by a kissing-up subject/playwright. It may be a bit of both.

Whatever the case, Laura Cole’s performance as Katherine is the show-stopper. Her accent was a little muddy and awkward to decipher at times, but her emotion and horror at her betrayal (by the meddling Cardinal Wolsey, mind you – not the husband who cast her aside and, oh yeah, married another woman) transcend any accent frustration. She is fragile (increasingly so as the play progresses) yet strong – and opinionated. In addition to the previously mentioned superhuman capacity to forgive, Katherine seems insightful and can smell a rat. She tries to talk some sense into the men around her regarding the Duke of Buckingham, who is executed early on for speaking against the powerful Wolsey, but she is ignored – and, unfortunately, metaphorically shrugs and adopts the “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy.

For the most part, the cast is solid. Tony Brown is perfect as the conniving, ambitious Wolsey and does a seamless 180 to evoke sympathy from the audience that detested him a few minutes earlier. Daniel Parvis, the Tavern’s resident comic genius and equally gifted dramatic actor, plays an almost-disappointingly reduced role in this one but does get to deliver the bookend speeches to the audience. (The final one, interestingly, mentions that some in the audience may have nodded off during the play! This premonition by the authors helped a little with the guilt factor of audience members who either fulfilled that prediction or very nearly did.)

The Tavern usually does a great job of concealing less-wonderful actors in smaller roles, but, unfortunately, there is a little bit of slippage in this play, and one already-overlong scene in particular suffers.

I mentioned the costumes early on, but it bears repeating. The Tavern’s costumes almost always are astonishing, but in this play they deserve their own billing. Gorgeous!

It’s not too puzzling that this play is not being churned out repeatedly by acting troupes throughout the nation. It’s slow-paced, it deals with a lot of political and interpersonal drama and it presents a Henry VIII that flies in the face of all we learned in history class. (The Tavern is offering a counterpoint – or a less glowing point of view – when it opens “Anne of the Thousand Days” soon. This play purportedly shows the little uncomfortable details – such as spousal beheadings and disappointment, rather than euphoria, at the births of baby girls – that somehow didn’t make it into this one. It promises to be an interesting juxtaposition, especially as the same principal actors are playing the same people in both.) But, while it may not be a ONCE-in-a-LIFETIME opportunity to see “Henry VIII,” it’s certainly an extremely rare one, and that alone argues in favor of taking this chance to see it done. Just be sure that you’re well-rested and alert.


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