The king in Shakespeare's Henry VIII is not the licentious, swollen-bellied, wife-dispatching monster we know from Hollywood. When we meet this Henry, he's relatively young, under the thumb of the scheming Cardinal Wolsey, and still consorting with his first wife, Katharine of Aragon. As the action proceeds, he'll divorce Katharine for Anne Bullen (Boleyn), learn to see through Wolsey's wiles, and gather the confidence, power and cruelty that characterized the real-life Henry's reign.
This play, which scholars believe is the result of a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, is rarely performed and doesn't fit easily into the categories to which we usually assign Shakespeare's works. It's obviously a history, but unlike the other histories, it speaks little of war, and the ending is celebratory. Three powerful people see their fortunes crumble, but though each in turn receives attention, none of them serves as the primary focus. The story is about the intrigues surrounding the king's court and the way they thicken as Henry casts off his queen — a divorce that requires that he also cast off the Pope's influence and power in England. There's a fair amount of pageantry, too, which makes Henry VIII a sort of moving tapestry.
Although the characters remain two-dimensional and don't reveal their inner thoughts, their statements are sufficiently self-contradictory to inspire speculative interpretation. We never know how much Henry's actions are motivated by the sexual charms of Anne Bullen, and how much by the fact that Katherine has not borne him a son. And while most of the characters speak ceremonially, as courtiers do, it's up to the actors to show us which professions of duty and compliance are sincere and which are not.
While it's laudable for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival to bring a rarely seen play to light, this production is incredibly misconceived. The set design is rudimentary, neither eye-pleasing nor evocative: a big Tudor rose tells you when you're in court; a swatch of draped fabric indicates Anne Bullen's chamber. The Tower is better represented, with gray, stony walls and stairs. But it's the costumes that are really troubling. The materials look cheap; the lines are ghastly. Everyone wears what appear to be canvas boat shoes under tights. I think this is meant to direct the viewer's focus toward the actors' faces rather than their feet, but white is one of those colors that pulls the eye, and you can't help noticing who's toeing in, who out, who walks gracefully and who like a bouncy college freshman. Wolsey's cardinal's cape looks less ecclesiastically crimson than blood-drenched — but for what reason? What's the point? The man gets people killed. It's in the script. We don't need a cape to tell us this.
Director James Symons has peopled the stage with many actors who seem unready for prime time, and some of these actors perform pivotal roles. Often the scenes play like parodies of Shakespeare, with actors gabbling incomprehensibly at each other, never seeming to consider the meaning of the words flying out of their mouths. When Gary Wright, as the Duke of Buckingham, learns he's about to be imprisoned in the Tower — and there can't be a bigger gut punch than that — nothing about his voice or posture changes in the slightest.
Symons has even managed to make two of Denver's most luminous and talented actors seem less than themselves. Sean Tarrant does everything in his power to embue the role of Henry with subtlety, life and surprise, and to speak his lines as if they mean something. But even he sometimes gets swept up in the amateurish rhythms of the dialogue. Besides, there's no way to look powerful and dignified with an idiotically voluminous skirt swirling round your legs. And why has Mare Trevathan, whose rich affect and expressive eyes rivet attention the second she walks on a stage, been instructed to speak in a Spanish accent so thick that it strains the muscles of her throat and periodically stretches her mouth into a tooth-baring rictus — not to mention making her speech incomprehensible? Though he, too, sometimes slips into the prevailing speaking-without-thinking mode (was everyone directed to talk really fast?), Julian López-Morillas acquits himself better as Wolsey, and the scene in which he advises Cromwell not to follow in his footsteps is touching.
But that's not enough to save this Henry.
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