Henry VIII at Shakespeare’s Globe review: Messy revisionist take shows why this history play is rarely revived

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 (Marc Brenner)
(Marc Brenner)

Though it has flashes of brilliance, Amy Hodge’s splashy, revisionist, female-focused staging makes Shakespeare’s troublesome late history play even more of a mess. Henry VIII is rarely revived for sound dramatic reasons as well as superstitious ones. Co-written with John Fletcher and constrained by Tudor myth-making, it’s short on poetry, long on pomp and pageantry. It also caused the original Globe to burn down when a cannon used as a stage effect ignited the thatched roof.

Nonetheless, you can see the allure for today’s Globe in staging it now, albeit without cannons. The play ends with a transcendent vision of the first Elizabethan age, and we’re just about to mark 70 years of the second. There are good speeches for Henry’s wives, Katharine and Anne Bullen (sic). Little known, the play doesn’t inspire reverence, so playwright Hannah Khalil has been enlisted to edit and augment it, cutting the ceremonial stuff and amplifying women’s voices.

Primarily she does this by creating a feisty but aimless role for Katharine’s daughter Mary, using lines from other Shakespeare plays. She also – spoiler alert – briefly brings on Henry’s four later wives and an adult Elizabeth I, who delivers the famous “golden speech” of 1601. Maimuna Memon and Tom Deering also turn snippets of sonnets into charming, folky songs performed by Genevieve Dawson and an all-female band.

Bea Segura as Queen Katharine (Marc Brenner)
Bea Segura as Queen Katharine (Marc Brenner)

But alongside Henry’s ruthless abandonment of Katharine in pursuit of a male heir – tactfully finessed in Shakespeare’s telling – this is also the story of the power struggle between the lords of his court and the all-powerful Cardinal Wolsey. You know, the bit before Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy. Hodge presents the men as buffoons.

Adam Gillen’s Henry is a yapping, yelping brat, who cavorts with a vast, inflated gold phallus and delivers one speech from a gold lavatory, pants round his ankles. In his dealings with Henry and Katharine, Jamie Ballard’s Wolsey has the manner of a financial advisor managing expectations rather than a ruthless political operator. The lords look like d***s too: the red and purple costumes are meant to comment on status and wealth but could have been knocked up for an American high school production.

Adam Gillen as King Henry VIII (Marc Brenner)
Adam Gillen as King Henry VIII (Marc Brenner)

And the women? As Katharine, Spanish actress Bea Segura gets a moment of yass-kween audience validation when she walks out of her trial, and a moving deathbed speech, but otherwise she’s overemphatic and overloud. The opposite is true of Janet Etuk’s indistinct Anne. The songs are often pretty but they break up the action rather than moving it on. Shakespeare’s commentating chorus of two men becomes two women, but why they are sitting in seagull-shat inflatable chairs is anyone’s guess.

And yet… there’s a lovely moment where Wolsey hands his robes, and his ambition, on to his protégé Thomas Cromwell. Henry’s obsession with primogeniture is succinctly expressed (trust me on this) in a scene using blue and pink balloons. Bland supporting characters pluck fine speeches out of the bones of the original text. There’s enough going on here to please nerds and Shakespeare completists, but I can’t honestly recommend it to anyone else.

Shakespeare’s Globe, in rep to October 21; shakespearesglobe.com

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