When I saw that Howard Brenton’s play Anne Boleyn, as performed by the Bebington Dramatic Society, was described as ‘a comic, historical drama’, I was somewhat thrown. I knew that Anne was one of Henry VIII’s two ‘beheaded’ wives, so was a little unsure as to what humour could be derived from this situation; shades of Blackadder II and its comedy executioner ran through my mind…
My uncertainty grew when, after a brief introduction by Anne (complete with severed head), the play took off with a scene set firmly in the court of not Henry but James I, in 1603. I began to wonder what angle this play was going to take. (Note to self: read the programme first!) However, despite my slight confusion at the start, I soon began to warm up to the story and, as I grew to recognise the familiar historical characters, was able to relax into the plot as it unfolded.
Anne came across as quite the political animal, meeting secretly with Protestant rebel William Tyndale and attempting to influence Henry towards creating a truly Protestant state. Far from being a naive pawn in a game beyond her, she was depicted as actively using her power over Henry to achieve her own ends. She was portrayed in a beautifully controlled manner by Jane Hamlet, who conveyed Anne’s intelligence, charm and determination with absolute conviction. In particular, her voice was melodic and she spoke her lines with a good understanding of their rhythm, making it easy to understand how Anne could have captivated Henry – and been accused by some of being a witch.
The supporting cast were no less engaging and clearly worked together as a team to convey the sense of courtly intrigue. I felt at the start that there was a slight lack of energy and momentum, but I put that down to my own slowness in getting to grips with the play’s plot and structure. Once the first act was underway I realised I was loving the characterisation of such familiar (or so we think) individuals as Thomas Cromwell, Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII and James I; the lesser characters, too, were lesser only in the sense of political rank, not ability.
I was particularly interested in Les Ebbrell’s portrayal of Henry VIII as a more relaxed, genial king than history commonly has us think. Clearly this was at an earlier stage in his reign, before the disruption caused by the repercussions of Anne’s story, and his desire for control, truly hit home. It was refreshing to see, in the beginning at least, what appeared to be a true love match – until of course Anne failed to deliver him a son, and his eye turned to Lady Jane Seymour… The shifts to the court of James I, and the arguments over the governance of the church and the translation of the Bible, then reminded us of the history that followed.
This ‘retrospective perspective’ on Henry’s reign, from that of James, was a clever means of illustrating how times change and how politics can be directed (and misdirected) by the feelings and natures of the individual characters involved. The occasional use of swearing might have ruffled a few feathers on more sensitive types, but I felt it was vital in establishing the violent nature of the times. Lady Rochford, described by Cromwell as a “lying f*cking bitch”, and played sympathetically by Val Marshall, was a key figure in emphasising the difficulty of politicking successfully. Her poignant line “I just want to be alive” must pretty much sum up what many people in her position (especially women) would have felt.
This was a fascinating play, performed by a talented group of actors, in an amazing building: the Gladstone Theatre in Port Sunlight. It shed a different light on a popular historical era, and I am now sufficiently intrigued by the story of Anne to pursue its alternative tellings in the tales of Hilary Mantel and others. Although this production’s run has now finished, I would recommend that you look out for both the play and the group’s other productions in the future. Great stuff.