The summer season in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Theatre started off with a bang on June 6. Thunder and a bit of lightning, actually, and a lot of rain. And they weren't doing "The Tempest." This is only the second time that the festival has produced Shakespeare's "Henry VIII" in the last 25 years and the elements didn't cooperate on opening night.
Like Shakespeare's other late plays — "The Tempest" and "A Winter's Tale—" the protagonists of "Henry VIII" ponder what is truly worthwhile in one's life when political power and earthly goods are taken away. Unlike Shakespeare's other "histories," "Henry VIII" is a cerebral rather than an action play. No sweeping battles here, few court intrigues.
"Henry VIII" is quite probably the last play Shakespeare wrote and there is ample evidence that a lot of it was written by someone else, probably John Fletcher.
Director John Sipes has fashioned a muscular and active production from an essentially static play, aided by strong performances from OSF's repertory actors. Suzee Grilley's stately choreography of pageants and masques and musical interludes, as well as Sipes' own fight scenes, are strategically imposed over the bare bones of the play's long ruminative soliloquies and expository dialogue.
Certain things work beautifully, like the swordplay that introduces Henry to the audience and the masque in which a disguised monarch "crashes" Cardinal Wolsey's party and meets Anne Bullen. Other embellishments are less successful. Sipes has staged Queen Katherine's last scene with her servant Griffith using Howie Seago, a deaf actor. Communication between the two of them is by signing. Katherine (Vilma Silva) speaks her lines while she signs; her lady-in-waiting Patience translates Griffith's "dialogue." The signing is an active counterpoint to Griffith's compassionate picture of Wolsey's demise and Katherine's moving last speech. Seago is a mesmerizing actor. But it does seem as though Sipes simply wanted to do something here to inject a little action.
If you know anything about Tudor history — or even watched the series on HBO — Shakespeare's depiction of the protagonists in "Henry VIII" is going to seem strange. King Henry, Anne Bullen (Boleyn), Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and a repentant Wolsey bear little resemblance to their historical counterparts. The noble, rejected Queen Katherine and the doomed flamboyant Duke of Buckingham (strongly played by Michael Elich) are probably closer to their historical reality than anyone else.
Now this play was written 10 years after Queen Elizabeth's death. Her successor, James Stuart, was not beloved by the English. England was nostalgic for those Tudors and "Good Queen Bess." Shakespeare was writing revisionist history with this play, aiming to please his audience and the new Stuart dynasty. To get a different take on Shakespeare's quandary, see OSF's production of Bill Cain's "Equivocation," currently playing in the Bowmer Theatre.
The Henry of "Henry VIII" (Elijah Alexander, new to OSF this year) is handsome, athletic and passionate. Because his father "bequeathed" him Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Heald, again deliciously smarmy) as an advisor, the King trusts him totally and discounts the stories of his grabbing at wealth and power.
Wolsey, of course, is the perfect villain. Contemporaries viewed him as an insidious evil influence on the young and eager Henry (a sort of Cheney to George W. Bush).
In Shakespeare's version of history, Henry is certainly attracted to the beautiful Anne Bullen (Christine Albright) but he is genuinely troubled by the possibility that his marriage to Queen Katherine is canonically unlawful and that is the reason she has borne no living sons. In other words, his desire for a divorce is theological rather than lustful.
The Henry of this play admires Katherine's spirit and dignity when she rejects the rigged "court" that is to examine the validity of her marriage. Anne Bullen here has no designs on Henry. She wants no power. She genuinely pities Queen Katherine. She is surprised — and only a bit delighted — when the King's Chamberlain arrives to give her a title and an income. She is utterly charming and her only failing we are told is a weakness for the Protestant faith.
If there is a real hero in "Henry VIII" it is Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (David Kelly). He is unswervingly loyal to the king, untainted by the corruption of the Church of Rome, pious and forgiving. Shakespeare gives the victorious Cranmer the last speech of the play at the infant Elizabeth's baptism, prophesizing great things for England when she becomes queen.
Here again, Shakespeare was playing to his audience. Cranmer was a noble figure to Shakespeare's contemporaries. Although, it fell to Cranmer as Archbishop of Canterbury to theologically legitimize Henry's divorce, marriage to Anne and the birth of Elizabeth some six months later — all while Katherine was still alive — Cranmer also theologically legitimized what ultimately became the Church of England. In fact, it was Cranmer who wrote the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, translating the Latin liturgy of the mass into English. He was later burned at the stake as a heretic by the Catholic Queen Mary (Henry's daughter by Katherine) when she came to the throne.
A note on those lovely, lush costumes: designer Susan E. Mickey has put her characters into costumes duplicating those in their portraits of the time. Even Anne Bullen has her string of pearls with the letter "B." Henry, Katherine, Anne, Cranmer and Cromwell all look like they have stepped right out of Holbein.
It is curious that "Henry VIII" is so rarely produced. Perhaps this may have to do with a subtle perception of bad luck surrounding the play. "Henry VIII" was the production underway when The Globe Theatre burned to the ground on June 29, 1613. The fire occurred when pyrotechnics during one of the pageantry scenes set fire to some thatching. A contemporary account, however, assures that "nothing did perish but wood and straw and a few forsaken cloaks" and that while one man did have his breeches catch fire, "a provident wit put it out with bottle ale."