Anne Boleyn from playwright Howard Brenton examines Tudor dynasty
Play promises unexpected take on history
TS Eliot may have been weirder than an ultraviolet raccoon, but he had some good lines. One of them was that civil wars never really end. It might explain our enduring fascination with the Tudors: Henry VIII’s decision to divorce his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn was the first tremor of a violent faith-quake that rumbles to this day, which perhaps explains why Howard Brenton has chosen Boleyn as the central figure of his new play.
Brenton was young in the 1960s and he still carries some of that decade’s spark of millennial utopianism, a trait he also ascribes to his heroine. He sees Boleyn as both a sexually fearless young woman and something like ‘an English Joan of Arc with a mission’. ‘I’ve no doubt her love for Henry was real,’ he says. ‘And she believed she was doing God’s will: with Thomas Cromwell she helped make the English Reformation.’ The play was originally written for Shakespeare’s Globe and Brenton credits the Globe stage with encouraging a rapid interplay between comedy and seriousness. It’s an attempt to reimagine Boleyn in all her complexity, even if, as Brenton notes, Anne turns to the audience at one point and admits that ‘she cannot understand and wonders if we understand her.’
Brenton is good at unexpected takes on history, having written the scalding The Romans in Britain as well as an intriguingly sympathetic portrait of Macmillan, Never So Good. Critics across the political spectrum have raved about Anne Boleyn: the Tudors are the dynasty that keeps on giving.
Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Tue 8–Sat 12 May