Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1
Opened 28 July, 2010

It is surprising how much of venerable left-wing playwright Howard Brenton’s better work in the last few years has been on religious subjects. There was Paul for the National Theatre, In Extremis, his previous Globe play about Abelard and Heloise, and now a drama that portrays Henry VIII’s affair with and marriage to Anne Boleyn in terms of the split with Rome, and compares this upheaval to James I’s religious policies some 70 years later. Herein lies the key: Brenton is concerned not with theology, but with churches as another kind of political body against which more and less powerful individuals strove. The connections between church and state in Henry’s time were complex and tortuous, and James at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 attempted to keep together a polity with the established Anglican church and with Puritans whilst moreover extending tolerance to loyal Catholics.

James Garnon’s James is at first a comic figure, vulgar and sporting an arsenal of nervous tics, but in the conference scenes he shows himself to be an astute politician and manipulator. It is a combination of styles that works well at the Globe, and one that I think Brenton has learned through his earlier experience here: Globe audiences are prepared to take serious matters seriously, but they do require more leavening with humour than usual. This is not the same play that Brenton would have written for, say, the Almeida.

Miranda Raison as Anne is the only major player to take the same role in John Dove’s production as in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, also at the Globe this season. Here, she is a woman both of fervent beliefs and steely ambition. After her copy of Protestant heretic William Tyndale’s book The Obedience Of A Christian Man is seized by Cardinal Wolsey, she prevails upon Henry (Anthony Howell) to order its return so that he might himself read Tyndale’s argument placing kings on earth directly under God rather than subordinate first to the Pope... an argument which would enable Henry to declare himself head of the Church of England, divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne. And through the whole court runs the intelligencer network of Thomas Cromwell (John Dougall). The play ends perfunctorily and tritely (even more so in performance than in the published text), but the journey to that point is a compelling one.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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