Tag Archives: Tudors

Anne Boleyn at the Globe

I am having a summer of Tudors. I have had many such summers as I have studied these over a period of 11 years, but I even when I spent a year studying their popular depictions, I have never seen so many plays on Elizabeth I and Anne Boleyn in a few months.

I have just seen the production at the neo-Elizabethan Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, London, on its opening weekend – a new play which sold out last year, as was the performance to which I went.

In his introduction to his script, playwright Howard Brenton quotes the views of historians David Starkey and Antonia Fraser, reflecting the likely opinion of the public. He does not mention Prof Eric Ives and Joanna Denny whose prominent books depict a very much more positive Anne. Joanna especially – as does Karen Lindsey – writes of the systematic demonisation of Anne’s character. All three remind that our few historical contemporary sources are chiefly Anne’s enemies, none of whom featured in Brenton’s play. Books – both novels and academic – have been ahead by 30 years in showing Anne as a national heroine, but stage and screen still cast Anne as the ambitious, hard siren. Philippa Gregory’s 2002 novel and ensuing films have done much to reverse this positive literary view, which has become in vogue again with most recent publications.

Brenton’s 2010 play promised a view closer to the one I adopted: the Reformist queen, as Joanna Denny calls her: ‘Esther not Jezebel’ – a title I borrowed for my 2006 dissertation. American author Robin Maxwell had Queen Elizabeth reading her mother’s words in her novel The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn; Howard Brenton has King Authorised Bible James reading Anne’s annotated Christian book and realising his connection to the fallen queen of two generations ago who suffered the same fate as his mother. (I never use the phrase that the blurb does – his debt. As you’ll see from my Justice in Banking blog on this site, I have strong views against debt culture). Note too that being executed does not denote failure, but rather a brutal signal of mission accomplished.

I was interested that a play was picking up the religious theme, as often theology is seen as too heavy and dull for entertainment, particularly when we are a multi and often no faith society. But the themes of tolerance and violence and faith recur, and spirituality is again popular though not always in established, orthodox ways. And this 16/7th C period is a seminal one in our history in which the burgeoning of new beliefs is central.

I was drawn to the play because it was written by a man who evidently could see Anne’s merits, significant as I felt anne appealed most to women. But it was Eric Ives in 1986 who said that Anne was an appropriate vehicle for feminism – though few have picked up that gauntlet – and it’s women who have written many of the works which fuel popular imagination that recast her as Jezebel.

It may seem obvious given its performance setting, but I didn’t expect Howard’s play to feel so Shakespearean, in the rowdy audience, bawdy and earthy kind of way. The experience of the Globe merits a few lines – booking fees, standing without umbrella or stick for £5 or, of if you pay £15-37 for a seat, there’s charges for cushions (and the wooden seats have lips which I think are designed to make you need one – but I managed without);- and a foreign group behind me who whispered throughout (translating to a child who was too young to be there) and put their feet on the seats. The atmosphere was closer to comedy than serious theatre, though there were both elements in the play. King James romps in a dress with ‘interesting stains’ with a male courtier whom he kisses; the ghost of Anne brings her severed head out in a bag; and it ends with an all cast jig.

James (Garnon/Stuart) perhaps was the most charismatic character on the stage, his strong Scots accent mixed with a tick, his camp manner helped by his shoes and beard. While we’re on accents – I am infuriated that the country folk once again got that generic West Country which is insulting and ignorant. There are many Eastern and southern counties accents, all quite distinct, and they sounded no more convincing than the Worzel’s Combine Harvester song, which was at least meant to be comedic. It’s like getting all North American or Celtic accents muddled. Actors and dialect coaches, take note!

I was not pleased at Anne’s physical appearance. She is famous for being dark, though Joanna Denny believes this is part of the demonisaton programme as ‘swarthy’ skin was seen as a sign of diabolism – appalling as that notion is. Denny believes that Anne was dark auburn, as per the most likely genuine contemporary portrait of Anne – but nowhere have I heard of her as blonde. Couldn’t Miranda Raison have dyed her hair or worn a wig? And couldn’t Henry be red haired? And why did Cardinal Wolsey have a beard?

I did not like the gore lust of the opening but I did like that Anne begins by assuming the knowledge of her death – which we never see – and by establishing a rapport with the audience. I liked the originality and pertinence of linking her and King James and the amount of material covered in an engaging way. Anthony Howell made a positive King Henry, kind instead of raging over the birth of a girl; but the man who had so many butchered in his name is relieved of too much of his violent, cruel and inhuman side. My favourite Henry remains Ray Winstone, whose complex depiction was the first to show me a man whom I could weep for as well as despise. Sometimes in Howard’s version, earthy comments – such as what Henry really wishes to say in his letters to Anne – mar the real point – the vulnerability of Henry’s enduring, consuming passion which must extend further than his tights to have raged so long and moved so much to be with her.

The audience was too quick to laugh at anything. The person who called out ‘ah’ in sympathy with broken Cardinal Wolsey was more correct that those who giggled, but either response turned this into a panto rather than the moment of pathos. When an important theological tenet dawns on Henry – that he could be king and head of the church without need of the pope and thus have his new wife – again, there was laugher. But it wasn’t the point; it was the turning point of the play and British history. We spent too much of the play in Caliban mentality rather than the Prospero and Ferdinand.

My gripe had been til this weekend that no-one has explained Anne’s swift demise satisfactorily. Brenton shows something I have not found in my research or other books – I hope to discover where he found it. But if it is true, it does account for the scheme to scaffold that in 3 weeks had the most powerful woman in the kingdom’s head in a basket. If Anne knew that Cromwell was embezzling ex monastic funds meant for charity, she had the key in which to bring about his downfall as Wolsey and More. (No temperate, cuddly Mr Northam here; this [absent] More is a torturer). Cromwell would take his advice to Anne earlier in the play, and strike before struck. The charges of multiple adultery and incest – treason in themselves – seem ridiculous, but perhaps an insecure king who could love and hate in equal measure could be persuaded in a very intense period to sign the death warrant.

But the frustration is that Brenton potentially closes one mystery but leaves something else unsatisfactory. The villain we focus on, particularly after Wolsey leaves, is Thomas Cromwell. The slippery faced multi officed politician always features heavily in Tudor plots, and he is usually credited as being the man who brought Anne’s death about. I have not seen him before portrayed as a fellow in faith, aiding illicit Reformist texts and their author’s passage out of the country. Yet his secret Protestant beliefs clash with his vile practices of threats and spying. They also don’t prevent Cromwell’s clandestine bond with Anne turning sour very suddenly and without enough explanation. One moment, they are sharing a prayer; suddenly he’s arresting her, banning her from speaking to or seeing her husband, and making up charges against her. The play – as with many other stories – does not say that Cromwell is executed during Henry’s reign, rather less efficiently than Anne’s French swordsman.

The jaunty dance at the end ruined the power of the ending. It should have ended with the ghost of Anne taking James’ hand – a quiet, poignant gesture. Instead the 150 minutes is augmented by cheering stamping dances that aren’t even fitting, and those final moments are quickly forgotten in their wake.

Ultimately, I am a little disappointed, but that is because it didn’t show my Anne; but that is good, because it leaves the way open for me to do so myself.

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Fallen In Love

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.

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I, Elizabeth review

by I, Elspeth

The play is a one woman show where the audience become privy to Elizabeth’s more private thoughts on the pressures of her to marry and to execute her Scottish cousin who had just landed in her realm, seeking solace, and to name or produce her heir, in a time of acute religious upheaval. It is all actual quotes, arranged to tell a story.

Writer/performer Rebecca Vaughan knows her stuff to an impressive level, and is just as articulate out of role as when playing the great queen. If your local theatre has a question time opportunity, I recommend staying after this 70 minute play and be amazed at her energy to discuss her subject with such enthusiasm and knowledge.

The original inspiration was the collected works of Elizabeth I, which led Rebecca to a vast amount of primary source research. She chose out of that 70 year life and two score year reign one year (1568) where lots of dramatic possibilities were happening. Like the first Cate Blanchett film, Rebecca found that the pre Gloriana era, the not yet supreme, assured, and avowed Virgin Queen was more interesting to write about than the later reign that perhaps is still firmer in popular memory.

It might seem a feat to keep us interested for over an hour, without a set change, any music, obvious scene breaks, or any props save a chair. Those who have had the pleasure of seeing Austen’s Women know that Rebecca Vaughan is capable of commanding our attention in that scenario, but I, Elizabeth is even a greater challenge: playing one character in one time, continuously talking, and hardly moving. The only feature to mark it out is the zinging light, a deliberately vague device to suggest another presence or tension, whether it be time, God, her own mind; but it gives a sense of urgency and unpredictability to the play.

It takes a while to adjust and immerse oneself in the Tudor language, though methinks it was more convoluted at the start. It becomes more modern, and sometimes more familiar. As someone who has also studied Elizabeth academically (though Rebecca’s learning is superior) and especially looked at her presentation in modern fiction, I have got used to hearing certain alleged sayings, often modernised. There are some which may be apocryphal which enter the cannon. Here, Rebecca has only used Elizabeth’s own words, and the only changes are to insert the name of a person or to change the tense. It is startling to learn what Elizabeth did actually say, and how popular sayings have been altered and re-entered popular collective history in a modernised form. As one audience member commented, this is easier to understand than Shakespeare is to the uninitiated.

I, Elizabeth by Dyad Productions premiered at the Edinburgh festival in 2010 and is continuing its nationwide tour in 2011.

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The Royal Wedding

When I left my home to watch the nuptials at my local cinema, the city was quiet -much like any bank holiday. But I was surprised to see decorators and Big Issue sellers at work as normal. After the event, I stepped outside, hoping to hear local church bells ringing;  I strained to hear a little chime distantly. Most shops were closed, but while the majority took the advantage of another bank holiday’s rest, few displayed anything in their windows about the event. One restaurant said it was closing due to ‘the wedding’ – the monarchical aspect was dropped. Others had triangular flags on strings but avoided the national tricolours. From one window dangled a Chelsea football flag – not even a local team – for the next day’s match. 

I am among those who are proud of our monarchy and heritage. But I did note that the service used words which made me shudder – about the very negative church view of why we have marriage – to stop fornication and to have children. I noted with pleasure the lack of ‘obey’ in Kate (now Duchess)’s vows. The Guardian points out that the music was very imperial. I am proud, although most of the unfamilar pieces didn’t stick out, especially not the new piece composed by John Rutter. The choir descants spoiled favourite hymns as usual. And there was a heavy military feel to the day, which I struggled with as a pacifist.

I am bored by the silly media commentary and bitch comments about the attire of people I often have no interest in.

What does interest me is a parallel between the new princess (why does she have to have her husband’s first name?) and the one of the women I most admire in History. Although also not royal or aristocratic, Anne Boleyn did keep her first name when she became queen. Her wedding to Henry VIII was a private and secret affair – its date is not known – but her coronation is easier to compare to yesterday’s wedding. Anne Boleyn is a much maligned woman, whose enemies’ vilification programme has been successful for 400 years. She was not the grasping bitch whose reign was cut short by beheading; she was the real star of the Reformation who set up the kingdom ready for the successes that her daughter Elizabeth reaped. She was a woman who also knew that her costumes of public occasions spoke symbolically as statements, and used them well. Allegedly also dark (although Joanna Denny disagrees) and slim, Anne had to wait a similar time to Kate (possibly longer) before finally marrying into royalty. In contrast to choosing an established military uniform, Henry’s bridegroom outfits would have been as interesting to see as his wives’. I believe that Jonathan Rhys Myers commented on playing Henry in the Tudors TV series that this was the best dressed male in history. The costume designers for the show got a unique opportunity to make such splendid clothes for a male.

 I wonder what the metropolitan police would have done to control the crowds who allegedly booed Anne and threw things on her two mile ride through the capital.

Which brings me on to the bitter aftertaste of yesterday’s affair. In reading the papers, what’s stuck in my mind was the heavy handed response of police. I chose contrasting papers; the more local and conservative one only briefly mentioned the arrests as a low number, instead quoting the police on the nice atmosphere in Westminster. The self aggrandised left wing one spent much time on the feelings of suppressed republicans who feel their right to an anti royalist view was curtailed by pre-emptive police. On the same page that OK magazine had its huge Royal Wedding special advert, this paper reported on Bristol anti Tesco protests being escalated by riot police – who then got what they dressed for. Also this month, I read of another recent time when British police had stepped in aggressively citing ‘breach of the peace’ before any had been caused. Rightly, complaints are being made at all these incidents. It’s the same month that I watched Stuart: A Life Backwards about two real men that met over protesting that managers of a shelter where drugs were dealt were arrested in a raid and then imprisoned.

Whilst some are angry at the public expenses of yesterday’s ceremony, the real bill comes from security. We didn’t  pay for the Abbey or the reception or the dress; the uniting families met those costs. What the recession and cut weary nation did pay for was a multi-million police bill, involving stop and search on all those near the abbey as well as heavy handedness at republican parties. Security now spoils any large event, which are often full of peace, fun and neighbourliness to strangers. We’ve become obsessed with searching people and it really should not be tolerated. Yes, if we’re innocent we mind particularly. And this same police force, who we regularly pay our taxes towards, is rough handling other peaceful demonstrations against important matters and undermining our right to be a free country.

Vintage wartime posters are available to buy, and felt all the more appropriate with their crowned slogans in the light of our internationally followed royal wedding. The one that is most appropriate is ‘Your freedom is in peril – fight with all your might’. That doesn’t mean taking up arms – but it does mean the right to publish, speak publicly and privately,  and hold up placards should never be curtailed.

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