Review: HENRY VIII (Stratford)

by Lynn on June 17, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Martha Henry

Designed by Francesca Callow

Lighting by Louise Guinand

Composer and sound design by Keith Thomas

Cast: Shelly Anthony

Rod Beattie

Wayne Best

Tim Campbell

Jacklyn Francis

Danny Ghantous

Jonathan Goad

Jordin Hall

Brad Hodder

Kim Horsman

Andrew Iles

Ron Kennell

Qasim Khan

Kevin Kruchkywich

Alexandria Lainfiesta

Roy Lewis

Irene Poole

Jake Runeckles

Stephen Russell

Oksana Sirju

Scott Wentworth

Ryan Wilkie

A beautifully realized, exquisitely designed production of a play about power, politics and wily maneuvering and the lengths Henry VIII went to have a male heir.

The Story. King Henry VIII married his queen Katherine of Aragon when they were very young. He was seventeen and she was twenty-three. They remained married for twenty-four years and by all accounts were happy. She was an intellectual match for him. But when the years past and she wasn’t able to produce a male heir and his eye fell on Anne Boleyn, Henry began thinking of ways to divorce Katherine and marry Anne. The politically astute Cardinal Wolsey was involved to pave the way for the law to be changed so Henry could re-marry and the religious concerns to be calmed.

The Production. In the small Studio Theatre director Martha Henry and her gifted designers have conjured the sumptuous, excessive world of Henry VIII by judicious and spare use of props and costumes that are bold in colour and, in the case of King Henry, voluminous. Kudos to designer Francesca Callow. Henry VIII, a masterful Jonathan Goad, makes a statement of power when he first appears in his beautiful gold robe. Goad controls the robe and is not overwhelmed by it.  With understatement but definite presence Jonathan Goad’s performance grows into the robe. It’s a performance of size, full of easy charm, careful watchfulness, a nimble brain and intellect and sharp eyes that never miss a subtlety in others of his court.

After that first impressive entrance when King Henry is ‘himself’, in shirt and beigey-gold fitted pants, he is still formidable.

An understated throne is upstage on a small platform—one doesn’t need anything ostentatious since the man who sits in it is all that one needs to establish the sense of power and richness. King Henry doesn’t just sit on the throne, he slumps fully into it. He leans to the left, an arm on the arm rest, his legs spread out in front of him, relaxed, ready and present. Don’t mess with this guy.

Martha Henry has created a court of political intrigue and secrecy. Characters have cloistered conversations with others sharing their mendacious plans; others stand on the ‘balcony’ above the stage and observe private conversations and imagine what is being said; rumour abounds.

At the centre of most of the maneuvering is Cardinal Wolsey, played with careful understatement by Rod Beattie, resplendent in the Cardinal’s impressive red cap, robe and black slippers. Most of the work regarding the character of Wolsey is already done by the time he arrives on stage. Courtiers refer to his scheming, his political maneuvering for power, his questionable character. We have an idea of a man of questionable ethics and hardly pious. So we just assume the same idea of him by the time he appears. It’s intriguing that Beattie plays against the sense of obvious evil and yet the notion of his evil is ingrained. I think of the damage done to the character and behaviour of Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest before she steps foot on the stage—but we just image and believe she’s a harridan from hearing all the negative comments about her. Same thing about Wolsey.

Martha Henry has of course directed this with a clear eye on the court intrigue surrounding King Henry and the decisions he must make to get what he wants. But Martha Henry also directs with a wink. In a one scene Wolsey attends a costume ball and makes a grand entrance from the balcony down the stairs. He is wearing red, silk pajamas. The red colour is in keeping with his Cardinal status; but it’s also the colour of the devil. Clever and impish.

In another scene a character subtly, quietly hums a bit of “Greensleeves” that is rumoured to have been written by King Henry VIII to woo Anne Boleyn, but generally discredited. I think Martha Henry is giving another wink to the audience with the humming of the song.

While Henry VIII has a handle on what is going on in his court, his relationship with Queen Katherine (of Aragon) is more fraught. They have been married for twenty-four years. She is his equal partner, intellectually and emotionally. But he needs a male heir and Katherine has not been able to give him one. As Katherine, Irene Poole is fire and passion. She realizes Katherine’s keen intellect and hot blooded emotion. She is fighting not only for her crown but also for her life. She is straight-backed, regal, formidable and an able opponent. When Katherine is dying she lies on a chaise and her hands float above her head and delicately circle each other as one would see in a Spanish dance. Katherine may have lived in England for her marriage but she is pure Spanish and this moving ‘dance’ of her graceful hands realizes her longing for her country. Kudos to Movement Director Valerie Moore for this simple, symbolic gesture.

When Katherine does die she is carried off by two courtiers. The courtiers are on either side of her and each wraps one of Katherine’s arms around his neck to secure her better. As they slowly walk off one of her arms drops down the back of a courtier.  Beautiful image.

King Henry does marry Anne Boleyn and she gives birth, to a girl, Elizabeth. While he wanted a boy, Henry brings on his baby nestled in his arms for his court to see, and he’s beaming. The court quietly circles Henry, each dutifully smiling and reveling in this baby. It’s a scene that is both joyous and subtly political. It’s another exquisite image in a production full of them. The circling of the court around the King and his daughter elegantly leads into the smoothest of bows.

Comment. Actor Roy Lewis (he plays Sandys, Lord Chancellor in Henry VIII) has created a poetic Epilogue for the play in the style of Shakespeare’s language, that sums up the past with a nod to the future. The Epilogue is fastidiously poetic—Lewis knows his way around poetry. He is equally accomplished as a poet and actor. It’s a fitting end to a production that beautifully realizes the grandeur and intrigue of the court and world of Henry VIII.

The Stratford Festival presents:

Opened: May 29, 2019

Closes: Oct. 12, 2019

Running Time: 3 hours approx.

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