Friday, February 22, 2013

Religious Feminism in Brenton's 'Anne Boleyn': An Exclusive Interview with the Director (Part 2)

~This is part 2 of a two-part post focusing on the first U.S. production of Howard Brenton's exciting new play 'Anne Boleyn'; yesterday's post reviews the play itself, while today's post features excerpts from an exclusive interview with Rachel Walshe, the director of Anne Boleyn at The Gamm Theatre.~

The Talkback panel at The Gamm Theatre assembled after the performance of Anne Boleyn. The Gamm's artistic director, Tony Estrella is seated second from the left; director Rachel Walshe is seated on the far right. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen

Between watching the magnificent Anne Boleyn and attending the "TalkBack", a panel-led discussion about the creation of the King James Bible, I had a lovely conversation with a woman named Barbara, who was sitting in the row in front of my mother and I. Barbara had noticed the ring on my hand-a reproduction of the famous chequers ring of Queen Elizabeth I, made for me by Rhonda of Sapphire and Sage. Though Barbara did not initially know exactly what ring it was, she was captivated by it, (it is very large and bejeweled, after all; it practically glowed in the dark!) and it gave me the opening to tell her the history of the ring itself. I let her try it on, (what use are reproduction pieces if you don't use them to teach?) and afterwards I gave her Sapphire and Sage's web address as well as my card. The fact that Barbara said that the conversation was, I quote, the "highlight of my day" brought great joy to my heart. I would like to think that the spirits of both Queen Anne and her daughter Queen Elizabeth were at work in The Gamm Theatre that afternoon!

An open and closed view of Queen Elizabeth I's locket ring, now known as the chequers ring. Discover its significance here.

After the Talkback, I introduced myself to the director of Anne Boleyn, Ms. Rachel Walshe. She had graciously agreed via email to have a discussion with me about her staging of Brenton's Anne Boleyn at The Gamm, and the discussion did not disappoint. Ms. Walshe answered all of my questions, demonstrating throughout a passion for women's issues and Anne Boleyn herself. In my opinion, the production could not have been directed by a more appropriate individual.

Anne Boleyn is the third play that Ms. Walshe has directed at The Gamm Theatre. She went to university in England, and she holds a Masters of English and Literary Theory from Oxford. The mother of two children, Ms. Walshe expressed a deep interest in directing pieces relating to women's issues.

Rhode Island seemed to me to be an unexpected place for the U.S. premiere of Anne Boleyn, which had previously been at the world-famous Globe Theatre in London. Why not New York, or Boston, or even Chicago? So I asked Ms. Walshe, why Rhode Island? And did she personally lobby to direct the piece, or was she assigned?

Shakespeare's reconstructed Globe Theatre in London. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Ms. Walshe informed me that the artistic director is responsible for choosing the plays that are to be performed at a given theatre. The artistic director of The Gamm Theatre, Tony Estrella, also happened to play a magnificent James I in the production. Mr. Estrella has a relationship with the playwright of Anne Boleyn, Howard Brenton; he had previously been able to secure the rights to the U.S. premiere of another one of Brenton's plays, Paul. Based on the success of Paul in Rhode Island, The Gamm also earned the rights to premiere Anne Boleyn.

The Gamm Theatre in Rhode Island. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen.

Ms. Walshe told me that she typically gravitates towards directing plays about women, and that Mr. Estrella knew this about her, in addition to her being a proud "card-carrying member of the cult of Anne Boleyn". These two qualities earned her the director's chair. As someone who researches Queen Elizabeth I and her mother, Anne Boleyn on a daily basis, I was delighted to hear that the enigmatic Anne had been put in the right hands. Ms. Walshe first came across Anne when she was studying for her masters at Oxford. The Tudors captivated her for the same reason that they captivate many, including myself: influenced by humanism, they are the first figures to preside over a court that is concerned with individual identity and self-improvement, as well as upward mobility; we can all recognize ourselves in the people of the Tudor court. Ms. Walshe said that she is "fascinated by women whose identities are so malleable that we can shape them into whatever we need them to be." We, she said,  "reinvent (Anne) to whatever we need her to be."

A miniature of Anne Boleyn, wearing her famous "B" necklace. By Hoskins. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Years later, Anne came into Ms. Walshe's life again after the birth of her first child. As Ms. Walshe humorously relayed, after giving birth you are "couch-ridden" for a few months, and this was around the same time that the Showtime series, The Tudors, first aired. Like most who study the time period, Ms. Walshe was aware of the inaccuracies, but still entertained. We both agreed that the actress who played Anne Boleyn in the series, Natalie Dormer, was phenomenal. What is dangerous about Brenton's Anne, Ms. Walshe points out, is that she puts forth the idea that a woman's sexuality can be anointed by God; Anne sees her "carnal desire as an engine of reform." Brenton has written Anne as a "thoughtful, spiritually invested woman who wants change." And when she dies, Anne's "spirituality remains intact."

Indeed, the play is unique in that it highlights Anne's role in the Henrician Reformation in England, (which has been both celebrated and downplayed by various historians) rather than solely focusing on her romantic relationship with Henry VIII. I asked Ms. Walshe why she thought this portrayal of Anne was so important.

Ms. Walshe agreed with me that this is an aspect of Anne's character that we rarely see examined; if it is mentioned at all, it is usually in passing. Anne has continued to capture the popular imagination for hundreds of years because she embodies "the two archetypes we tend to box women into". This are, as any women's history scholar knows, the 'Madonna' and the 'whore'.

I asked Ms. Walshe if she had had the opportunity to see Anne Boleyn performed at The Globe; she said that she had not, but that she had seen other plays there. I asked her how The Gamm Theatre's production was different to the staging at The Globe.

Ms. Walshe pointed out that the script, having been commissioned for The Globe, lacks the stage, lighting and set directions typical of a traditional theatrical script. The Globe, as an open-air, Elizabethan theatre, has no theatrical lighting or artificial scenery. The stories performed there are "all indicated in the language", with the characters often speaking in asides or appealing to the audience, a device that anyone who has read or seen Shakespeare performed is familiar with. 

Ms. Walshe said that the creative team was "hyper-aware" of these differences; audiences at The Globe know not to expect scenery or lighting, but American audiences do have that expectation. The Gamm's challenge here, Ms. Walshe said, was to tell this story to an audience without those expectations.

Therefore, set, lighting, and props had to be discussed and developed by the creative team exclusively for this staging.

The author on the Anne Boleyn set. Photo by L. Jensen.

Also created specifically for The Gamm Theatre's production? The costumes! Tudor clothing was incredibly elaborate, and even creating stage versions (versus completely historically accurate ones) is a challenge. I was surprised to learn that not a single outfit worn by any character in Anne Boleyn was recycled from another show. Watching the show, it appeared to me that the costume designer, David T. Howard, had made a stylistic choice to portray the Tudor and Stuart courts differently. James I and his court wore clothing in black and white and grey, a color palate I would refer to as "puritanical". Ms. Walshe told me that for James I's court, Mr. Howard had been inspired by woodblock prints from the 16th and 17th century. In contrast, Henry VIII and his court were clothed in the sumptuous reds, greens, purples and golds of Tudor England. One of Henry VIII's outfits looked especially familiar to me; Ms. Walshe confirmed that the Holbein-esque red, white and gold costume was indeed inspired by Henry VIII's most famous portrait.

A likeness of King Henry VIII, after his famous Holbein portrait, by artist George S. Stuart. The figure is part of Stuart's Gallery of Historical Figures. Photo shared for public use on Wikimedia Commons by the photographer, Peter d'Aprix

The dates for Anne Boleyn were extended through this weekend. I asked Ms. Walshe if she was surprised by the show's success, and if she knew where the play would be traveling to next. Ms. Walshe told me that, though she would have liked to have believed that positive reviews and word-of-mouth were why The Gamm's staging of Anne Boleyn was so successful, she didn't think that that was the case; most of the dates were sold out before their opening weekend. Ms. Walshe surmised that Hilary Mantel's award-winning books, as well as Philippa Gregory's successful novels, had put the Tudor's at the forefront of popular culture and contributed to Anne Boleyn's success.

There is certainly something about the Tudors!

Ms. Walshe does not know where the next production of Anne Boleyn will be, but it is now available to any theatre in the U.S. that wants to buy the rights.

~I would like to thank the cast and the crew of Anne Boleyn at The Gamm Theatre for creating and performing a fantastic show. I also would like to thank the delightful Rachel Walshe for agreeing to be interviewed for the BeingBess blog.~