Howard Brenton's iconoclastic historical drama is a hands-down crowd-pleaser
You can see why the original Globe theatre production of Anne Boleyn sold out, and why Howard Brenton’s iconoclastic re-imagining of Henry VIII’s second wife was subsequently sent on a tour of the UK: the show is a hands down, no-arguments crowd-pleaser. Brenton and returning director John Dove have pulled of the admirable trick of capturing the dramatic essence of the 16th century England period setting in all its witty, bawdy glory and at the same time giving the proceedings a modern polish with language and jokes that never feel anachronistic.
Brenton has done a convincing job of re-creating an Anne Boleyn as neither the passive victim of her ambitious father and her licentious king, as she was portrayed in the BBC bodice-ripper The Tudors, nor the scheming femme fatale as imagined by Hilary Mantel in her novel Wolf Hall. Brenton’s Boleyn is something in between the two, but also something more: a figure of state who was instrumental in making England Protestant, but also a woman who was passionate in her personal relations and fervent in her religious beliefs.
That re-imagining of Henry’s second wife is a fine achievement in itself, but Breton’s drama exceeds expectations by integrating into the story of Anne’s life and death the grand narrative of how England extricated itself from the Catholic church. Not for one moment does the show descend into a history lesson; never for an instant does a line of dialogue feel like exposition. Brenton’s smart move is to tell the story of the English Reformation through the experience of his protagonist, but also through the eyes of King James I, who, as the play opens, has taken the English throne and, 70 years after Boleyn’s death, becomes curious about her role in making his new kingdom Protestant.
All of the above would best be consigned to history books, however, were it not for the sterling work of the roundly excellent cast. Reprising his role as King James, James Garnon almost steals the show with a mercurial performance that’s both clever and comic. The other returning members of the principal cast also impress, though, particularly Jo Herbert with her strikingly confident Boleyn and Julius D’Silva and Colin Hurley playing, respectively, Henry’s scheming First Minister Thomas Cromwell and the venomous Cardinal Wolsey, both nemeses to their Queen.
It’s a nice, democratic touch to have the show climax with a song and dance that unites the whole cast. And it’s wholly appropriate that their appearance en masse got a hearty ovation at this the end of the touring production’s run.
Anne Boleyn runs at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre until Sat 12 May.