“Wow! What a fabulous show!” – Henry VIII at the Folger Theatre, Sunday November 7, 2010

November 15, 2010 at 7:24 pm (Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

“All good people, /  Pray for me. I must now forsake ye.” Thus does the Duke of Buckingham go to his ordained end.

The Duke’s deeply moving words of farewell are spoken with a quiet eloquence by actor Stephen Patrick Martin. Although he has been falsely accused and convicted, Buckingham faces death with stoic  courage. He is generous and forgiving, which is more than can be said of his scheming adversaries.

The powerful Cardinal Wolsey is also heading for a fall. It’s the way things go at the court of King Henry VIII – on top of the world one minute, awaiting execution the next. Wolsey cannot but reflect bitterly on the irony of a situation brought about by his own overweening actions, freely chosen:

Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.

Anthony Cochrane, whose sonorous baritone richly conveys the turbulent emotions of Cardinal Wolsey as he contemplates his own ruin

Finally, there’s the noble Katharine of Aragon (Naomi Jacobson), set aside after two decades of marriage so  that the King can marry Anne Boleyn. Like Buckingham, Katharine faces death with a noble mien:

Remember me
In all humility unto his highness:
Say his long trouble now is passing
Out of this world; tell him, in death I bless’d him,
For so I will. Mine eyes grow dim. Farewell,
My lord. Griffith, farewell. Nay, Patience,
You must not leave me yet: I must to bed;
Call in more women. When I am dead, good wench,
Let me be used with honour: strew me over
With maiden flowers, that all the world may know
I was a chaste wife to my grave: embalm me,
Then lay me forth: although unqueen’d, yet like
A queen, and daughter to a king, inter me.
I can no more.

In latter years, Henry VIII has come to be thought of as a problematic play, largely due to its odd structure. In our program, in the “Dramaturg’s Notes,” Michele Osherow informs us that the cast and crew received the good wishes of the Archbishop of Canterbury. His Excellency went on to comment that “Henry VIII is a play very seldom performed these days, in this country at least.” (Osherow notes that the play was, in fact, made part of this past summer season at the Globe Theatre in London.)

In an essay at the back of the Folger edition of Henry VIII, Barbara A. Mowat explains the two different views that critics hold concerning this vexed question of the play’s structure. The first group see in Henry VII what Mowat calls an essentially “providential” element. In this interpretation, the play’s action follows what Mowat terms a

….comic parabola, a progression of events  leading to the play’s significant moment: the birth and christening of Elizabeth and Cranmer’s prophetic vision – a vision of a new Golden Age when the royal infant will grow up to be a “pattern to all princes” and of an England in which, under Queen Elizabeth, “every man shall eat in safety / Under his own vine what he plants / and sing / The merry songs of peace to all his neighbors.”

(A bit of elucidation here: Archbishop Cranmer, played by Nathan James Bennett, is Wolsey’s more biddable successor. His speech predicting great things for the infant Elizabeth is certainly stirring. The first recorded performance of Henry VIII took place in 1613. By that time, Good Queen Bess had been dead for some ten years, her accomplishments already recorded in history’s ledger. Cranmer’s encomium has, therefore, the benefit of hindsight.)

The play appears to other commentators as exemplifying a pattern known as the Wheel of Fortune:

They argue that the play focuses our attention and our sympathy on three of Henry’s victims in turn – Buckingham, Katherine, and Wolsey – and that the unifying design of the play is a series of linked circles, a repeated pattern of rises and falls on Fortune’s wheel, a pattern that the still moment of Elizabeth’s christening interrupts only briefly.

(All this talk of Fortune’s inexorable and cyclical motion put me in mind of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. I looked the piece up on Wikipedia and was greeted with the sight of Fortune’s Wheel, in the form of an illustration that appeared on the original score of this highly original and inventive musical meditation on the inscrutable workings of fate: .  Here is the “O Fortuna” from the Carmina Burana:

Click here for the English translation.)

The “providential” school sees the play as essentially a comedy, with England itself as the hero. The Wheel of Fortune critics tend more toward the tragic view.

At the play’s conclusion, Anne Boleyn is in the ascendant, and we all know what eventually happened to her. O Fortuna indeed… 

I came to this performance never having seen or read Henry VIII. For me, one of the great pleasures of the Folger productions has been the opportunity to approach certain of the Shakespeare plays “cold” and evaluate the experience as a neophyte playgoer.  Two of my favorite occasions that took place along those lines were Measure  for Measure and A Winter’s Tale. In both cases, the Bard worked his magic on me, seemingly without effort.

Although I was not especially au fait concerning the niceties of the intrigues at the King’s court, I of course knew the broad outline of the story of King Henry VIII. This is no doubt true of even casual students of English history. The drama inherent in Henry’s  struggle to put by his loyal and long suffering queen so that he can marry his would-be paramour is justly famous. On one level, it is a very human tale; on another, because of the dramatis personae and their importance on the world stage at the time, the outcome was bound to be, as they say nowadays,a  game changer.

Religious conflict was at the heart of this seismic overthrow, but you would not necessarily know that watching this play. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom observes:

Shakespeare, with his customary political caution, avoids any suggestion that Henry is particularly culpable when his favorites fall, though the playwright also never quite exonerates the king. Even the Catholic-Protestant confrontation is so muted that Shakespeare hardly appears to take sides.

I loved this production; so, for the most part, did the reviewers. Mark Lee Adams begins his write-up in ShowBizRadio with the exclamation “Wow! What a fabulous show!” Peter Marks’s review in the Washington Post was somewhat less effusive but still, on the whole, positive. And click here for Robert Aubrey’s enthusiastic rave on About Town.

Fabulous costumes; terrific acting – Ian Merrill Peakes excels once again in the lead role – and of course the inimitable poetry of William Shakespeare made for a wonderful theater going experience.

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Thomas Cromwell is a minor figure in this play, but he is the chief protagonist in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Through Cromwell’s eyes we see the destabilising chaos caused by Henry’s obsession with Anne Boleyn and his equally obsessive fixation on the need to provide a male heir to England’s throne. Mantel’s riveting novel was much on my mind as I watched the doings on stage.

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During the initial performance of Henry VIII (alternatively titled All Is True), the Globe Theatre caught fire. Several eyewitness accounts of this event survive, probably the best known being contained in a letter from Sir Henry Wotton to a friend:

“… I will entertain you at the present with what happened this week at the Banks side. The King’s players had a new play called All is True, representing some principal pieces of the reign of Henry the Eighth, which set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty even to the matting of the stage; the knights of the order with their Georges and Garter, the guards with their embroidered coats, and the like: sufficient in truth within awhile to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous. Now King Henry making a Masque at the Cardinal Wolsey’s house, and certain cannons being shot off at his entry, some of the paper or other stuff, wherewith one of them was stopped, did light on the thatch, where being thought at first but idle smoak, and their eyes more attentive to the show, it kindled inwardly, and ran round like a train, consuming within less than an hour the whole house to the very ground. This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabrick, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks; only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”

One especially appreciates that last bit. Can’t you just see a contemporary headline: “Man with Pants on Fire Doused with Beer!!”

For more on this – the actual fire, I mean – see the Globe Theatre site.

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The Folger production of Henry VIII has extended its run through to November 28. Therefore: hie thee with all due haste to the Folger’s box office! Should you obtain tickets, the schematic below may be of use to you:

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