A review of a new production on ‘Anne Boleyn’s secret heart’
I was very excited to see this new play by Ipswich based theatre company Red Rose Chain, who say they had people crossing the Atlantic to see it and reviewers from all the national papers. They quote historical biographer Alison Weir’s positive comments, although she is thanked in the acknowledgements as being a key part of the research.
I have been passionate about Anne for several years and she formed a major part of my research degree. I was interested in how popular contemporary sources portray her, and how things have entered the canon of knowledge -ie what is seen to be true at any one time.
The canon regarding Anne has changed since the 1980s. Her enemies’ vilification programme was successful for 4 centuries, until several independent researchers of different backgrounds realised that there was another Anne than the Jezebel-esque ruthless upstart. Film has been slower to catch up, still portraying her broadly this way, and Philippa Gregory’s novel and now movie have tipped popular perception for the initiated back towards negative.
This summer, I’ll see two new plays on Anne, hoping that they might offer more of the fresh perspective that sees her as a heroine as Jean Plaidy, Vercors, Joanna Denny and Eric Ives have done.
Fallen in Love was disappointing for its portrayal and its execution – and no, not the one at the end of the play.
It wasn’t that I could detect historical inaccuracy, but that the portrayal fitted the conventional old style view – Anne as perhaps complicated, perhaps with a sympathetic motive, but not even as Prof Ives said – someone one admires but not likes. Naive Anne suddenly becomes hard, and we miss that trajectory out due to a major shift in time. The naiveté is shown through silly voices and exaggerated running about and frivolity.
I confess that I have never warmed to George Boleyn, and it is a shame that he is such a part of this play. Writer and director Joanna Carrick gives him the best lines – making out that it is he (not Anne) who is the religious reformer, the one who hates corruption but can also see genuine faith in some of the monks who are being so horribly butchered. She even lets George say the wonderful alleged final speech that Anne wrote to Henry about being raised from Commoner in stages to the highest honour of all – martyr.
A story about Anne that does not feature Henry feels odd. Small casts are tricky, and this duo didn’t hold the necessary interest for me. I didn’t know that it would just be Anne and her brother, and when this became apparent, my enthusiasm sagged. I also didn’t like the casting of Anne – again, a personal matter, but she didn’t act in a way that made you understand why the most powerful monarch of the western world was so smitten with her that he took such great steps to be with her. And – why this woman was deemed so dangerous that she was killed swiftly and then demonised.
That last part is something I have never found to be satisfactorily explained.
Fallen in Love is not the strongest title, suggesting a chick lit appraisal of one of Europe’s great moments of history. I had expected, therefore, a love story – and presumed this would be one of the few that would show Anne in love with Henry: often the affair is portrayed as onesided. I believe one intended interpretation of the play’s title is, as Gregory and Warnicke alone suggest, that Anne’s incest charge was actually accurate, with which I and most other scholars vehemently disagree.
I have particular tastes in theatre, leaning towards physical theatre and cross media as ways to best use the stage as a way of telling a story powerfully. This was a very traditional talk continuously play with too little room to act physically; the set is designed round a bed which also holds up the tee pee. The epic story doesn’t work in a small tent with not much of set. The post death scene with feathers and dancing was the best -for theatricality and innovation, and a welcome break from over egged young thespian voices.
Practically, there were also problems. Passing trains and football in the park didn’t help the authenticity. The tickets are expensive for what they are – £15 to sit an a marquee on uncomfy chairs with poor toilets, and a simple kiosk for refreshments. They have 2 evening shows back to back, meaning you can’t get in the carpark until the previous show has gone. This contradicted the ticket’s advice of arriving at least 15 minutes early. It wasn’t clear from the crude map that the Hall is not accessible from Gypeswick park, although it seems logical to assume it is. Retracing steps, having found the prohibitive high fence, wastes several minutes.
There was a free short aftershow by a community theatre. As much as I wish to encourage people to find their artistic feet, I have to say that this was a painful experience. What jarred most was not poor acting quality, but the incessant swearing. Dramatically, to swear constantly means you have played your trump card until it has no meaning. There are no more organ stops to pull out when the tension rises. The director warned it may offend ‘sensitive’ people, but sensitivity and a dislike of foul language are not connected. The action and dialogue were lost under the cursing. Group penned Guiltless Ghost is a play about transposing Henry, Anne, George and Jane Parker to a group of four friends on a modern housing estate, all on mobile phones and in chav gear. It forgets the high born grandeur, religion and politics at the heart of the Tudor story, and that Anne Boleyn does not lend herself to a kind of Gavin and Stacey directed by Shane Meadows or Peter Mullan. The bit that made me scoff into my hands was the closing voiceover quote that gave the piece its name. Halting, with a very Ips-witch rising accent, it made what might have been an interesting idea into a farce.