It was no great surprise when the original production of Anne Boleyn sold out Shakespeare’s Globe in 2010 before opening night. Henry VIII’s second wife, beheaded for adultery, has always captured the popular imagination. But for all the dark historical romance of dusky silks and John Donne lyrics set to live music, what really propels this touring version is Marxist playwright Howard Brenton’s startling freshness of vision.
David Sturzaker (Henry VIII) and Jo Herbert (Anne) in Anne Boleyn at the Theatre Royal Brighton (previous picture shows James Garnon as James I) Photo: Robert Day
Jo Herbert’s Anne bewitches her court with frankness, and curries favour with the audience via some very modern outbursts (“I just wish the bitch would piss off to a convent,” she says of Catherine of Aragon).
David Sturzaker makes sympathetic sense of Henry as a young king animated by love but exhausted by lust, who knows time is slipping through his fingers.
Reprising his Globe role, James Garnon fascinates (and, enhancing his resemblance to Eddie Izzard, sporadically cross-dresses) as a wildly life-loving yet politically astute King James I. His tics come to seem less a comic grotesquerie, more a badge of heroism as his brain visibly boggles with the effort of reconciling Catholic and Protestant. As his male lover observes: “He’s fighting a war in his head… between two Englands.”
But it takes sharp timing and subtle characterisation from John Dove’s whole cast to communicate both the comedy and cruelty of a court ruled by male appetites. Anne may breeze bravely on (albeit with her head in a bag) to the all-singing, all-dancing finale, but we’re not supposed to forget the chilling image of female powerlessness and exposure as Henry’s servants gawp over a glass bowl containing her miscarried child.