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Kings & Rogues Season


Shakespeare's Globe Theatre


Henry VIII or All is True

Dominic Rowan as Henry VIII in Henry VIII Shakespeare's Globe

Photo by John Tramper


by William Shakespeare


Director: Mark Rosenblatt


Designer: Angela Davies


Composer: Nigel Hess

Choreographer: Sian Williams


15 May -21 Aug 2010







A review by James Buxton for EXTRA! EXTRA!

As I walk up the uneven steps to the top floor of the North Tower of the Globe Theatre, the wind blows through the sturdy, wooden bars of a window exposing me to the chill of a clear night in summer. Reaching my seat, a bench directly opposite the wide stage below, I lean over the edge of the balcony, my knees pressing against the bars and look down into the pit where the audience stands below the stage awaiting the performance. Looking up, above the thatched circular roof into the clear blue, evening sky, birds twitter and fly into the stands as a plane soars overhead breaking the illusion of Elizabethan times. The Globe is a theatre open to the elements, the round sky above us provides the lighting as it slowly fades from day to night while the birds singing create a harmony of nature co existing with theatre.

Henry VIII or All is True was written in collaboration with John Fletcher, a younger contemporary playwright of Shakespeare's and was first performed around 1613. At the first recorded performance of the play on 29 June 1613, a canon shot set fire to the thatched roof and spread so rapidly that within an hour the entire theatre was burnt to the ground was fired in Act 1 scene 4 in a scene in Cardinal Wolsey's house,. In a letter from Sir Henry Wotton, a former ambassador to Venice, to his nephew he describes the scene “This was the fatal period of that virtuous fabric, wherein yet nothing did perish but wood and straw, and a few forsaken cloaks, but only one man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broiled him, it he had not by the benefit of a provident wit put it out with a bottle of ale.” Fortunately for tonight's performance history did not repeat itself, although a surprising shot was let off, no doubt intended to scare the audience into thinking it would.

Henry VIII is a play about power, and charts Henry's desire to marry Ann Bullen, (Anne Boleyn in history) a young protestant lady in waiting and be rid of his wife Queen Katherine of Aragon. He uses the excuse that she has not provided him with a male heir as reason for the divorce and employs the devious Cardinal Wolsey to support his claim that the marriage was void from the beginning as he married his brother's widow. Wolsey however is playing a double game, appeasing Henry on the one hand while sending a letter to the Pope to delay the divorce as he cannot bear to see the “Lutheran” Ann Bullen crowned queen. Wolsey's letter is discovered and he is stripped of his office and luxuries. Bullen is crowned queen while Katherine dies. The cleric Cranmer is made Archbishop of Canterbury in Wolsey's place, however the pro Catholic council attempt to send him to the Tower, till Cranmer reveals Henry's ring as proof of his royal support, he retains power and becomes the godfather to Bullen's baby daughter in a lavish ceremony. 

Dominic Rowan gives a terrific performance as Henry VIII, perhaps slightly more athletic than the king in real life, his presence is nonetheless impressive. He dominates the court and the crowd with a strong, audible voice that fills the Globe. Rowan displays Henry's ability to command respect while at the same time portraying his jolliness and lascivious nature.  At various points he stands in the classic pose of Holbein's painting of Henry with his feet apart and his hands on his hips. The sumptuous costume of gold and black shoes, golden velvet doublet and hose, and gleaming chain round his neck all contribute to creating a regal effect.

Ian McNeice as Cardinal Wolsey lumbers about the stage with a staff propping him up, his sneering jowels sink into the satin red robes of the papacy. McNeice captures the cunning nature of a man obsessed with power. He is ruthless with Buckingham (Anthony Howell) who attempts to expose him for deciding matters of state without the King's knowledge but Wolsey has him hanged without a  stirring of compassion. In Henry's company however he grovels and prostrates himself before the king, until he is denounced for treason, which he accepts with a resigned dignity.


Ian McNeice as Cardinal Wolsey in Henry VIII at Shakespeare's Globe

Photo by John Tramper

Queen Katherine played by Kate Duchene in a lavish dress the colour of crushed red grapes that trails behind her presents the refined queen with grace and poise. When the king attempts to divorce her, passion gets the better of her and she flares up into a rage, refusing to hear the court's proceedings, asking ‘what has she done to deserve such a treatment’ and leaves in contempt of court. She confides in her young ladies in waiting whose royal blue dresses create a feast for the eyes as they sit sewing and singing along to a man playing a lute. She hurries about flustered, unable to understand why she has been so wronged, ironically seeking solace from Ann Bullen (Miranda Raison) who cannot meet her gaze. Her breakdown ensues and in one scene she sits with her trusted servants, with a pale, sickly visage she falls asleep and has a nightmare in which a fool appears from a chest carrying a puppet of a young boy which is given to her and then wrenched away as her cries resound around the theatre.


Kate Duchene as Queen Katherine in Henry VIII at Shakespeare's Globe

Photo by John Tramper


The Globe's wide, thrust stage is used inventively with an aisle coming out of the middle of the stage into a square platform at the centre of the theatre, which has  flights of stairs on three sides allowing characters to access the stage. This serves the magnificent processions that occur throughout the play with a suitable runaway to walk down and also encourages more active participation with the audience. Such as when Buckingham is about to be hanged, he entreats the audience as if they were the crowd gathered at Tyburn. At another point two guards mischievously mock the audience, pointing out people and hand a lady in the audience, a broom, a hat and a ribbon. This participation gives a more raucous, bawdy feel to the performance as the audience actually feel that they are part of Shakespeare's play. Shutters at the back of the stage are closed with sudden effect simultaneously, hiding grills where voices and faces are barely visible, suggesting the secrecy and rumours of the royal court.  Angela Davies design incorporates a red carpet around the perimeter of the main stage which is used ingeniously at points to serve as a corridor, as actors exit through the main double doors at the back of the stage and re enter through another door on stage right; this allows the action to occur in the centre of the stage as if it were another room. Mark Rosenblatt uses this function in a very clever way when Katherine in the central space upstage is surrounded by her ladies in waiting who are bent in religious supplication to her Catholic priest, while Ann Bullen in the corridor downstage gossips with an old serving lady about how she could not possibly accept the title of queen. The Lord Chamberlain (Sam Cox) appears and bestows upon her a title as the Marchioness of Pembroke as a gift from the king, creating a stark contrast between the devout, solemnity of Queen Katherine and the youthful, excitement of Ann Bullen.

During the feast and in the processions, musicians dressed in fine livery play on a balcony above the stage a mixture of lute, percussion, natural trumpets, violins and other instrumentation suitable for the era. At the scene of the christening of Elizabeth where the cast in white cloaks laced with gold proceed along the central aisle, a group of young children dressed as choristers sing from the balcony adding to the grandeur of the spectacle.  At moments in the play a gong provides dramatic tension, increasing in speed as events build to a climax.

Henry VIII or All is True is a sumptuous visual experience that effectively immerses you in the royal court through its magnificent Tudor costumes and high quality acting. Rowan's Henry VIII is a commanding, lively presence that distances itself from the lager than life icon that we are familiar with through the history books, creating a more humane, sympathetic character. While Kate Duchene as Queen Katherine fully embodies the extremes of emotion that Katherine endures.  The back stabbing, sly nature of court politics with all its superficial hypocrisy is brought to life by fine support acting.

Above all, Henry VIII is a spectacle that brings to mind what the next coronation might look like and is well worth seeing just for the incredibly lavish costumes and grand processions, let alone the fine acting and direct engagement with the audience that brings the play spectacularly to life.


Miranda Raison as Anne Bullin in Henry VIII at Shakespeare's Globe

Photo by John Tramper


Shakespeare's Globe
21 New Globe Walk 
London SE1 9DT


£5 -£35





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