Anne Boleyn is a name known to us all, even if most of us know little of the details. She was at the centre of a major upheaval as Henry VIII sought to defy the church, which stood in the way of his divorce, by basically becoming the church himself. It was a time of plots and machinations when it was a triumph to ‘keep your head while all around are losing theirs’. Anne failed in this endeavour at the next shift in intrigue and in Henry’s affections.
So, how does a play capture all this without becoming a dull historical and political pageant? Surprisingly well as it turns out. The play is set in two time periods – during Anne’s time itself and also 6 decades later with the Scottish James I newly arrived from Scotland to take the combined English/Scottish throne.
We begin with Anne addressing the audience and enlisting them to view the story with her. Nicol Cortese’s portrayal of Anne was full of such youthful vivacity and charm that it was evident she could twist a lusty but frustrated Henry (excellently played by Craig Shelton) around her little finger in order to secure the marriage bed rather than that of the concubine.
Anne plays a dangerous game, consorting with the heretic protestant William Tyndale (nicely done by Mark Wiszowaty), reading his outlawed books and even standing up to the dangerous Cardinal Wolsey (Hugh Sorrill, who seemed made for the part). On her side were that these writings were the key that would allow Henry to break with Rome and that Thomas Crowell (Brian Emeney), arguably the most powerful man at court, was also a protestant supporter.
The speech is modern, allowing easy access for a modern audience, and there is much humour in the telling. Much of the latter was reserved for the James I scenes, which formed a light-relief counterpoint to the deadly time of Henry. If there is a stand-out among the many top-notch performances here, it is Jon Elves as James. Playing him as an outrageous libertine with tourettes (of the twitchy variety rather than rude) he was a delight to watch. He was ably backed up by court official Robert Cecil, played with a masterful comic touch by Keith Railton, and courtier George Villiers, the object of James’ amorous attentions, well played by Joe Fallowell.
Most of the rest of the cast performed a solid supporting role, although there were some weak points. In the religious debates in James’ court, some of the antics of the supporters in their ludicrous false beards distracted from, rather than adding to the main activity. And in the scenes with Tyndale’s supporters, characters had a habit of stepping forward to speak and then hovering backwards into line again. It feels that not enough time was being spent by the director with the supporting cast and it took some of the shine off and almost reduced the rating to four stars.
A delightfully entertaining evening out and a demonstration that even a large cast can excel (mostly). I even learnt a lot about the whole story of Anne Boleyn.