Henry VIII, the king, is one of England’s best-known monarchs. “Henry VIII,” the play, is one of Shakespeare’s least-known works, even though its initial run made a favorable impression, and one performance literally brought the house down.
Actors’ Shakespeare Project is hoping audiences will respond with equal enthusiasm to its production. Directed by Shakespeare & Company founder Tina Packer, it runs through Jan. 5 at the Modern Theatre. The company, however, most certainly will not be looking to repeat the events of June 29, 1613, when a cannon shot off during the play set the Globe Theatre on fire and burned it to the ground.
That’s just one reason “Henry VIII” has always seemed like one of the Bard’s black sheep. This is a diffuse and sometimes puzzling work whose title character does not dominate the proceedings. (He isn’t even in the play’s original title, which was “All Is True.”) Henry secures a divorce from Katharine of Aragon; the second of his six wives, Anne Boleyn, is crowned; and Henry and Anne’s daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth, is born. Along the way, the Duke of Buckingham is accused of treason, and aristocrats and ecclesiastics — the latter group including Cardinal Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Cromwell, and Thomas Cranmer — jockey for political power and royal favor.
Doubts have also arisen as to whether Shakespeare wrote the entire play. “The Tempest,” his apparent farewell to the theater, had been presented back in 1611. Some scholars think he collaborated with John Fletcher on “Henry VIII” and the play that followed, “Two Noble Kinsmen,” as a kind of post-retirement project.
But as Packer points out, “one of the good things about Actors’ Shakespeare is that they do the whole canon, they don’t shy away from the obscure plays.” ASP artistic director Allyn Burrows notes that “Henry VIII” was among the few remaining Shakespeare plays the company hadn’t done yet. Packer had directed “Troilus and Cressida” for ASP last year, and Burrows says, “I’d been looking for another opportunity to bring Tina back.”
Packer is in fact trying to finish out her own Shakespeare canon. “And I was really keen to do ‘Henry VIII,’ ” she says, “because you hardly ever get a chance to do it. I also thought Allyn would be a terrific Henry VIII. I thought if it wasn’t his company I was casting but some other company, I would still have asked for him to be Henry VIII. Allyn has a very outgoing personality. He’s athletic. He likes women. He can turn on a dime emotionally, and Henry is very volatile in this play.
“It’s kind of a play about the struggle for Henry’s soul. Was he wrong to marry his brother’s wife? Is that why they’ve never had a male heir to the throne? Is God punishing him? For Henry VIII, this was a real question, and I think Allyn has a good sense of all that.”
One of the tantalizing things about “Henry VIII” is that it could have centered on Katharine, or Anne Boleyn, or Buckingham, or an England caught between Catholicism and Protestantism. Certainly it could have been the tragedy of Cardinal Wolsey, who falls from grace after his scheme to become pope is revealed. Robert Walsh says he’s more than happy to have that part. “I always hope for the bad guys,” he admits. “Wolsey’s a great role, a complex and interesting dude, both in real life and as Shakespeare has interpreted him. For me, personally, the jury’s still out on him.”
Regarding the authorship of “Henry VIII,” both Packer and Burrows see the play as Shakespeare’s. Whoever wrote it didn’t stint on characters — there are 42 named roles and a slew of supernumeraries — or on masques, processions, coronations, and christenings. “We have borrowed costumes from everywhere,” says Packer. “On the other hand, we only have 10 actors, so it’s a bit of run around the back, change the costume, and come on again.”
And yet Packer has actually added a character. “Henry VIII had quite a famous woman fool, Jane, who was inherited by Bloody Mary and then went on to Elizabeth. I have this woman fool on stage in the form of [actress] Bobbie Steinbach, and every time I’m missing a character, because we don’t have enough people to run around the back and change their clothes and run on stage again, Bobbie does it, as the fool.”
This seems appropriate in a play where women, as in many of Shakespeare’s late works, are a redeeming force. Burrows calls “Henry VIII” “an homage to Queen Elizabeth.”
Packer says, “In the end, this play is about good women. The people liked Katharine; I think it’s quite an accurate portrait of her. She’s the one who takes on Wolsey and says he’s taxing people. And Anne doesn’t really want to become queen, she has doubts about being chosen and has sympathies with Katharine. I think Shakespeare chose the material because he was interested in the political machinations, he was interested in Wolsey, he was interested in Katharine, and then he was interested in the baby Elizabeth coming out of all this, the greatest monarch England had ever had.”
And if that isn’t reason enough to go see “Henry VIII,” Packer adds, “I think people should seize this opportunity, because who knows when they’ll get another chance?”Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at email@example.com.