Thursday, February 21, 2013

Theatre Thursday: A Review of Brenton's 'Anne Boleyn' (Part 1)

The playbill for The Gamm Theatre's production of Anne Boleyn. Image uploaded to ExperiencePawtucket.


~This is part 1 of a two-part post focusing on the first U.S. production of Howard Brenton's exciting new play 'Anne Boleyn'; today's post reviews the play itself, while tomorrow's post will feature an exclusive interview with Rachel Walshe, the director of Anne Boleyn at The Gamm Theatre.~

On Sunday, February 17th I attended a performance of British playwright Howard Brenton's 'Anne Boleyn'. Anne Boleyn had originally been commissioned for the recreated Globe Theatre in London, where it had a very successful run, premiering in July of 2010. It starred Miranda Raison and was directed by John Dove. I followed the play through articles and reviews online, hoping that it would make its way "across the pond" to America so that I could see it. Luckily, Anne Boleyn made its U.S. debut in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which is within driving distance of where I live. My mother, ever-obliging of my Tudor interests since I was a young, (seemingly strange) child, joined me. I wrote to the Gamm Theatre in advance, requesting an interview with the director, Rachel Walshe, for my blog. I was delighted when Ms. Walshe wrote back, granting me an interview after the show.

The historic Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. I was delighted to discover that The Gamm Theatre looked like a brownstone castle; how appropriate for a production of Anne Boleyn! Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen, 2013.

Anne Boleyn has been having a moment...for hundreds of years! She has been the subject of countless books, and has been portrayed in film and television, theatre and literature, and has inspired dramatic music and art; she has even been reincarnated in doll and action figure form! But Brenton's two-act play is unique amongst them all in that it highlights Anne Boleyn's role in religious reform in England, rather than solely focusing on her romantic relationship with Henry VIII. The play, like any piece of art, takes certain historic liberties, the most glaringly obvious being that it suggests that Anne Boleyn had a personal relationship with William Tyndale, whom she met periodically in the forest to discuss religion. Untrue as this may be, it serves as a plot device to illustrate Anne Boleyn's interest in reformist ideas, which we know that she, her father and her brother all had. And, despite Anne being referred to as a Protestant in the play, we know that she would not have thought of herself as such, being that the term was not yet in use, and that she died within the Catholic faith.

Despite these minor issues, and a few other questionable references that we have no evidence to support (like Thomas More torturing Protestants in his house with a portable rack), Brenton's script as well as The Gamm Theatre's staging of it was phenomenal. It was both thought-provoking as well as entertaining, a difficult balance to achieve with a historical piece. 

The play opens with Anne Boleyn, enigmatically portrayed by Madeleine Lambert, boldly addressing the audience, holding a bag and asking us if we want to see what is inside. The bag holds both her head and her personal copy of William Tyndale's translation of the Bible. Shortly thereafter we travel to the court of James I, who has recently succeeded to the throne of England. Robert Cecil (acted by Sam Babbitt with the dry wit characteristic of the Cecil's) looks on as his new sovereign, played by Tony Estrella, rummages through the possessions of Queen Elizabeth I: her 2,000 dresses, in particular, fascinate the notoriously frumpy James! In the Gamm Theatre's staging, the dresses of Queen Elizabeth were suspended from the ceiling of the tiny Black-box theatre. 

Me, wearing my replica chequers ring and my great-grandmother's church gloves, on The Gamm Theatre set for Anne Boleyn after the show. Photo by L. Jensen 2013.

A curious chest is brought forth that, when opened, reveals the coronation gown of "the concubine", our heroine Anne Boleyn. Therefore, Brenton is implying that Queen Elizabeth secretly kept some of her mother's personal possessions (and the evidence suggests that, if she had access to them, she probably did). King James becomes excited like a little school boy, and continues examining the box; in doing so, he uncovers a secret compartment that reveals Anne's personal copy of William Tyndale's Bible, with her notes scrawled in the margins. I found this to be an accurate touch, as Anne and Henry VIII exchanged notes in the margins of books that they would pass back and forth to one another. James voices aloud his wish to know Anne's story; we are then transported back into the court of King Henry VIII, where we see Anne's story unfold.

Throughout the play, the audience travels back and forth between the sumptuous, scandalous court of King Henry VIII, and the stark, sober court of James I, who is tying to appease the religious parties in England: the Anglicans, the Puritans, the Presbytrians, and the Catholics, while also retaining his position as the Head of the Church of England. And what is the best way to achieve this? By creating a new Bible, of course, which will support the Divine Right of Kings, but also incorporate phrasing and doctrine from the different religious sects. The result is to be, of course, the King James Bible (first published in 1611). This part of the play is masterfully written. Act Two, Scene One in particular stands out, where James brings forth Dean Lancelot Andrewes, Doctor John Reynolds and Henry Barrow to discuss the points of religion where they differ: baptism and original sin, the structure of the Church, atlar rails, and the "big, black and monstrous, elephant-size" word in the room, 'Presbyterianism'.  In Act Two, Scene Six, James asks Dean Andrewes and Doctor Reynolds how they would translate 3 Greek words for the new edition of the Bible, 'Ecclesia', 'Presbyteros', and 'Agape'. Naturally, the two scholars come up with entirely different answers, illuminating the issues of translation and making it all the more remarkable that the different committees assigned to create the authorized version of the Bible were able to put together a cohesive document.


Brenton's confident and sensuous Anne will seem familiar to those who study and admire her, but it is truly a revelation to see her portrayed as a convicted champion of reform on stage. As the official description of Brenton's play claims, "Anne was a religious conspirator, in love with Henry VIII but also with the most dangerous ideas of her day." Anne sees her relationship with King Henry VIII as God's will; Henry VIII is supposed to divorce his Catholic "cow" of a wife, marry Anne, and usher in a new, Protestant England. Like the real Anne, Brenton's version is prone to outbursts, and alienates those around her who had supported her in the past, notably Cromwell. In a startling omission, Thomas Cranmer is not included as a character in the play; since Anne Boleyn centers around Anne's role in religion in England, it seemed strange to me that Anne Boleyn's personal chaplain and friend was nowhere to be found.

Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII Shooting Deer in Windsor Forest, by William Powell Frith, 1903. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.
   
Most historians are in agreement that Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII first sexually consummated their relationship during their visit to Calais, France, and Brenton follows this consensus. The intermission begins exactly when they are about to get into bed together, though the script gives no official stage direction as to how to announce the intermission. The Gamm Theatre came up with a rather amusing way; they had Henry and Anne engage in a steamy embrace, having Anne briefly break away and turn her head to  the audience, saying, "And we will now break for a 15 minute interval" followed by a mischievous wink!

In the Second Act, Anne's story resumes after her coronation and the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth; a feverish Anne is concerned over the gender of her child, and is seen sitting on the ground, clutching her coronation robes like they are an infant. Henry approaches her, and Anne asks him, "Have you come to take it away?" Henry responds, "Take away what, my love?" Anne says matter-of-factly, "My dress". "Why should I do that?" Henry asks her. Anne responds, "Because I was made Queen in it. And now they won't let me be Queen any more." Anne is obviously foreshadowing her own fate. Brenton's Henry is extremely kind (perhaps too kind in this moment) and understanding. Henry, played by Steven Kidd, declares, "We are still young", a version of the famous quote where Henry declares that he and Anne are both young, and sons will soon follow.

In the end of the play, it is Cromwell who is the architect of Anne Boleyn's fall, not Henry VIII. According to Brenton's version, Queen Anne had discovered that Cromwell had been illegally lining his pockets, and those of his relatives with money and property from the dissolution of the monasteries. Because she was going to reveal this information to Henry, Cromwell had to act fast in order to destroy her first. Of course, the fall of Anne Boleyn is a far more complex matter, but in a two act play, the audience must be given a simple explanation in order to expedite us to the execution. 

Jane Rochford, played by Casey Seymour-Kim, has a prominent role throughout the play as Anne's friend (as she was in real life, for a time) and is in the room when Anne is arrested; she hurriedly explains to Anne that she testified against her to save her own life. This plot-twist is believable because Brenton has written Jane as a woman who is mistreated and threatened with violence by various men throughout the play; this gives us a reason to believe that she could be so easily swayed by the threat of rope torture at the hands of Cromwell. 

When Anne is arrested, she demands to see Henry, and is carried off stage screaming her husband's name. Seeing the once-proud Anne reduced to a state of terror in theatre and cinema always brings tears to my eyes, and this production was no exception. 

Anne Boleyn is Condemned to Death, a 19th century painting by Pierre Nolasque Bergeret. Picture from Inor19 on Flickr.

Henry VIII begins his relationship with Jane Seymour toward the end of the play, and Cromwell warns Jane not to discuss matters of religion or state with Henry, instead advising her to "Let him lie on your bosoms, not your opinions."  At the end of the play, Anne addresses the audience as she did at the beginning; she calls the audience "demons", for she cannot tell what they believe. 

ANNE: Dear demons of the future, what I can't tell...what I can't tell is what you believe. You're so strange to me, as i must be strange to you. But...but...beware of love. No, don't! We must all die, so die greatly, for a better world, for love.

Brenton's Anne never regrets her love of King Henry VIII or of reform. The real Anne probably didn't, either. 

I bought a copy of the extraordinary Anne Boleyn script after the show. I was pleased to see that the official "Shakespeare's Globe" seal was right on the cover! The direction and the acting of The Gamm Theatre production were as impressive as the script. And, it should be mentioned that the dialect coach did a stupendous job in helping the actors master distinct accents from different parts of England, as well as teaching an understandable Scottish brogue to Tony Estrella, who played James I. Estrella is also the artistic director of The Gamm. As I would find out later from the director, a previous performance had included a "row of Brits" who believed that the actress who played Anne Boleyn was actually English. This, it should go without saying, is high praise!

Following the play was the third in a series of "TalkBacks", a panel-led discussion relating to the history of Brenton's play. This particular session was about the creation of the King James Bible, and featured an engaging and knowledgeable scholar in Reformation studies, Jeannine Olson. Professor Olson could rattle off the dates and the history of the Reformation and the creation of different Bibles at rapid speed. My mother turned to me and said, "I think that I am seeing you in the future." 

Thank you, Mom, I certainly hope so!


The "TalkBack" panel, which followed the February 17th production of Anne Boleyn at The Gamm Theatre. Second from the left is artistic director and actor Tony Estrella, followed by Professor Olson and director Rachel Walshe. Photo by Ashlie R. Jensen 2013.
Dear readers, have you seen a production of Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn? If so, what were you opinions? 

Visit BeingBess tomorrow for part two of our post focusing on Anne Boleyn, featuring an exclusive interview with the director, Ms. Rachel Walshe.

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