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.