“I would lose my life rather than my honesty”
Anne Boleyn marks the first new play in this year’s programme at Shakespeare’s Globe. Written by Howard Brenton, it features Miranda Raison in the title role, continuing a character that she also plays in Shakespeare’s own Henry VIII, also playing in rep. This is a review of the first preview, so please bear that in mind whilst reading my thoughts below.
The play covers the life of Anne Boleyn from her time in court as one of Katherine of Aragon’s ladies-in-waiting, through her developing relationship with Henry VIII and the ideals of Protestant reform, ideas that ultimately caused her downfall but also sowed the seeds for the huge upheaval that culminated in the Civil War. What Brenton has done though, is to couple this story with the story of James I trying to establish control over a sceptical kingdom and varied religious groupings, centring around his commission of a new translation of the Bible. James is haunted, literally, by Anne’s ghost and her legacy and the two combine to great effect.
Miranda Raison is just fantastic. Her opening salvo gave her the audience in the palm of her hand and kept them there right until the end. Her Anne is a headstrong, impetuous, fiercely intelligent and self-aware woman, fervent in her belief that she is following the right cause in Protestant reform and all-too-aware of the fragility of her situation. She flits between playing the character and her ghost with consummate ease and feels so comfortable onstage, whether conversing with the audience or her fellow actors. She has particularly great chemistry with Anthony Howell’s manly but subtle Henry VIII, one really believes in them as a passionately in love couple, and their scenes together crackle with flirtatious energy and often a great wit. A truly brilliant performance from a very exciting actress.
What is impressive though is that the production maintains a vibrant energy even without Raison’s luminous presence and this is chiefly due to James Garnon’s punchy, Eddie Izzard-inflected turn as James I. A really energetic performance, his dance with Ben Deery’s handsome Villiers was a little homoerotic ball of fun and a great way to open the second half but also in the more serious matter of controlling the two warring religious factions in his kingdom, the way he pricks and deflates their pomposity was just brilliant: that whole scene is a work of genius.
The ensemble, many of whom are in Henry VIII, were marvellously strong throughout (impressively so given this was a first preview) special praise goes to Amanda Lawrence in a wonderfully substantial part as Lady Rochford, John Dougall’s manipulative Thomas Cromwell, Michael Bertenshaw’s Cecil and John Cummins’ Simpkin.
The stage has a long thin catwalk which extends most of the way into the yard which really brings the action into the heart of the theatre and is extremely well used. The set is nicely dressed: trees with golden leaves and a pale backdrop offsetting the sumptuousness of the costumes, for this is an extremely well-dressed production, some great dresses (I loved the early green velvet of Anne and her ladies) and britches and a great cameo for an impressive clothing rail stuffed full of dresses.
John Dove’s direction is near flawless: the action is fast-paced and fluid, the scene changes are wickedly well done, the music well-integrated into proceedings, this seems to be a confluence of a whole world of things going right, especially with excellent writing which is completely appropriate to the venue and a top-notch ensemble on top of their game. I even loved the opening gambit of having the players ambling onto the stage and chatting away to the yardlings for five minutes or so, a simple thing but highly effective. So, a little unexpected for but probably the highlight of the Globe’s programme so far this year: absolutely highly recommended!