Shakespeare’s Globe London Cinema Series - Henry VIII Review

Henry VIII - The Historical King and Background

Outside of the current monarch - the long-reigning Queen Elizabeth II - King Henry VIII is the best known British monarch to Americans, and undoubtedly the best known king. This is not surprising, despite the fact that Henry VIII died in 1546 – over two centuries before the Declaration of Independence, and well over 50 years before the first permanent English colonies.

Henry VIII knew of America, though; his father, Henry VII, was frugal, and initially turned down Christopher Columbus’s bid for financing for his famous voyages of discovery, deeming them too speculative and expensive. And since the English did not even pursue any American colonies during Henry VIII's reign, he might be surprised to learn that English would eventually become the dominant language in North America.

Both during his lifetime, and for the four and half centuries since his death, Henry VIII has been a larger-than-life figure, both in Britain and America. The great Dutch artist Hans Holbein’s portraits of him – the first to be commissioned in large numbers by an English monarch – have ensured that when Americans think of “a king”, they often picture Henry VIII, a member of the Tudor dynasty, who ruled for 37 years during the first half of the 16th century. Even the fast-food chain Burger King’s “King” character, in the TV advertising campaign, derives his costume and overall look from Henry.

Henry had an enormous ego, even by the standards of 16th-century quasi-absolute monarchs. And he would undoubtedly have been delighted to learn, that even 500 years later, in the 21st century, new technologies have made it possible for his likeness to be promoted all over the globe. The white-hot, just-concluded Showtime series, “The Tudors”, has been part of a powerful revival of popular interest in the period, globally.

And this meant that NCM Fathom Shakespeare’s Globe London Cinema Series had a real winner on their hands, when Shakespeare’s Globe opted to produce Shakespeare’s Henry VIII on stage in 2010. They included it as part of their cinematic release of the season, themed as ‘Kings and Rogues’, in 2011. We had the good fortune of seeing it in a suburban Philadelphia movie theatre – and Henry VIII died well over a century before Pennsylvania was founded in 1682. (We would have enjoyed the three previous entries of this season, but regrettably, we didn’t discover them, until it was too late to see any but Henry VIII.)

Henry VIII - The Cinematic Experience

We can best describe the experience, as being equivalent to actually attending a performance at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Without booking a flight to Heathrow and/or entering a time machine, this is as close to experiencing Shakespeare’s productions – under the same conditions in which his contemporaries saw them – as you’ll ever find.

According to Dominic Dromgoole, Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe:

“With the advent of new technology it is now possible to see and hear theatrical productions in the cinema with a wonderful sharpness and clarity. We are delighted that these productions will be finding new audiences, who can experience Globe shows as if they were in the building.”

We particularly enjoyed the significant introduction to the performance, in which they discuss the construction of a replica Globe Theatre in London, the revival of Shakespeare as his contemporaries saw it, and the overall back story of how these magnificent stagings are done.

The play takes place in daylight – as there were no means of artificial light, other than candles - so the vast majority of performances took place, during the day. The stage extends deep into the audience, in a manner more similar to a modern rock concert than a traditional stage theatre. Another similarity to rock concerts is that the audience is only seated on the balconies and the grandstands; there is a standing crowd on the floor, densely packed, standing and cheering, and the actors and action are right in their midst. Although most Americans view Shakespeare as dreary educational assignments to be endured, rather than enjoyed, it must be remembered that Shakespeare’s productions were blockbuster entertainment in the 16th and 17th centuries, with enormous crowds and tremendous popular appeal, rivaling big-budget Hollywood films today.

We found it helpful to read Henry VIII before attending the play, but one wouldn’t need to do that in order to enjoy the production. No prior knowledge of the major events of Henry VIII’s reign is needed, in order to enjoy the performance.

Henry VIII On Stage - An Opportunity of a Lifetime

It is surprising, given Henry VIII’s notoriety – far greater than any of the other English kings, to whom Shakespeare turned his talents, in his many history plays – that Henry VIII is rarely performed today. Aware of this fact, we jumped at the opportunity to see it, as we never anticipated we’d ever have the chance to do so, given how rarely it is performed.

One major reason is that it is perceived – although inaccurately – as not being written by Shakespeare himself. Another is that it is associated with a major disaster – during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613, a cannon shot (a special effect during Cardinal Wolsey’s banquet scene) accidentally burned down the Globe theatre. This is probably the best known fact about the play, but the play itself is certainly worthwhile for a viewer, even one with no knowledge of Shakespeare.

However, prior to the 20th century, Henry VIII was performed very often. Victorian audiences were thrilled with the lavish staging, and there was often intense competition for the “best roles” – i.e., the Duke of Buckingham, Catherine of Aragon, and Cardinal Wolsey. It is ironic that all three of those figures face defeat, both in the play and in actual history.

Buckingham was executed for treason for plotting to seize the throne (to which he had a stronger claim, in fact, than Henry). Although not technically executed, Catherine was divorced for both political and romantic reasons. She hadn’t borne a healthy son to succeed Henry - and due to Henry’s attraction to the considerable beauty and charms of the far younger Anne Boleyn. Catherine was divorced, stripped of her crown, and kept in isolation until she died of a broken heart, years later.

Wolsey – Henry’s most powerful courtier, early in his reign – fell from favor, after he failed to persuade the Roman Catholic Church to permit Henry a divorce from Catherine; he died en route to trial for treason, due to failing health. But the once-omnipotent cardinal undoubtedly would have shared Buckingham’s fate, had he lived long enough to stand trial. It’s intriguing that the roles of the three martyrs were the ones most sought after by actors; they all have long soliloquies, in which they face their respective fates with dignity and humility, and attract great sympathy from audiences. The title role, ironically, isn’t the best one. The king isn’t in many of the scenes; one analogy might be NBC’s The West Wing, in which Martin Sheen’s President Bartlett is a supporting role, with the main action focusing on his own, 21st-century courtiers in the White House.

The play’s strength is its opulent and grandiose pomp and pageantry – most particularly, the scene of the coronation of Anne Boleyn.

Although Shakespeare’s play ends prior to these historical events, Henry eventually executed Anne and several male courtiers on false charges of adultery, deemed treason due to threatening the legitimacy of the king’s potential heirs. These acts of judicial murder were committed due to Henry’s frustration with Anne’s failure to deliver him a healthy male heir. Since obtaining a legitimate son was the primary (although not exclusive) reason for his divorce from Catherine of Aragon – to whom he had been married for many years - Henry decided to turn his attention to Jane Seymour, and needed Anne out of the way.

The coronation scene was an immediate hit with contemporary audiences, due to its majestic staging. It was so popular, in fact, that it was often included as a pot-sweetener to attract audiences to other unrelated Shakespearean plays! (“Come see _________ - and as a special bonus, see the coronation scene from Henry VIII!”)

Its lack of popularity in the 20th century notwithstanding, it seems very possible that - and only partially due to Showtime - Henry VIII will once again rise in popularity on stage. This production is a great place to start, for anyone interested in Shakespeare and/or the turbulent events of Henry’s long reign. As with all period pieces, the play alludes to contemporary events at the time of its staging, as much as to the time in which it is set.

The play was first performed in 1613, during the reign of King James I, Henry’s grand-nephew and the first Stuart monarch. But the play was an exercise in nostalgia for English Jacobean audiences. Henry VIII had reigned for nearly four decades, dying in 1546. His daughter, Elizabeth II, would reign for 45 years, from her accession in 1558 until her death in 1603 – just a decade prior to Shakespeare’s play portraying her father, and her birth.

The emotional climax of the play comes at the end, during the christening of Elizabeth in 1553 – the daughter of Anne Boleyn, so sumptuously crowned in an earlier scene. (Remember, contemporaries would have been universally aware of Anne’s ultimate fate and the success of the reign of her daughter.) Since contemporary audiences already felt nostalgia for the lengthy reigns of Elizabeth and her father, it hit a chord with them. Shakespeare brilliantly selected the events that would most appeal to audiences, and he was forced, by definition, to be highly selective in terms of what events made the cut for the play. It must be remembered that in the 21st century, it took "The Tudors" four seasons to cover Henry’s reign; Shakespeare did it in less than three hours.

Henry VIII - The Stellar Cast

The stellar performances by the cast make this a highly worthwhile experience. One of the most interesting aspects for us – as faithful viewers of “The Tudors” – was simply seeing different actors playing the now—familiar parts of Henry, Katharine, Anne, Wolsey, etc.

Dominic Rowan brings a regal majesty to the title role. Miranda Raison expertly plays Anne, who must pretend that she does not wish to be Queen, although she most certainly does. Kate Duchêne brings the abandoned, forlorn, wronged Katharine to the stage in a poignant manner. Anthony Howell’s Buckingham and Ian Mcneice’s Wolsey, also Henry’s victims, lament their fatal ambitions, as they recognize them as the source of their downfall.

Of particular interest was the character of the Fool, played by Amanda Lawrence (and a character only appearing once on "The Tudors"). In the introduction, it’s explained that the 2010 production added a unique flourish to the role of the Fool. The Fool – traditionally given the freedom to say things that no other courtier would dare say – isn’t shy about bringing on stage the baby son, who obsessed Henry and led to his famous six marriages. The baby appears intermittently throughout the play, and Henry is clearly troubled by the image. Wolsey and Katharine fall due to the baby’s failure to appear; the baby Princess Elizabeth is born, solely from Henry’s determination to obtain a son. Her Prologue sets the stage for what the audience can expect:

Be sad, as we would make ye: think ye see

The very persons of our noble story

As they were living; think you see them great,

And follow'd with the general throng and sweat

Of thousand friends; then in a moment, see

How soon this mightiness meets misery.

Finally, the play moves very quickly. Including the 30-minute introduction, you’re in the theatre for three hours, but the time truly zips by. You don’t ever want to get up, in case you might miss something interesting, and you actually wish that it would last longer, in fact. For both entertainment and a fascinating glimpse into 16th century England, Henry VIII is a great choice.

Elizabeth Draper, Arts Alliance Media’s VP of Alternative Content Distribution, summarized it well:

“The superb digital cinema picture and sound quality that viewers can experience in their cinemas brings them even closer to the action of these world-class productions, all for the price of a cinema ticket. We’re delighted to be working with one of the most highly regarded Shakespeare companies in the world, and look forward to making the Shakespeare Cinema Series experience a truly unique one, for theatre and cinema lovers, and students, worldwide”.

In fact, we are already looking forward to the offerings of the NCM Fathom Shakespeare’s Globe London Cinema Series in 2012, whatever they may be…

To learn more about the production of Henry VIII, as well as the remarkable offerings of the Globe, you can visit Shakespeare’s Globe London Cinema Series in movie theaters.

For more information about how you can see not just Shakespearean theatre, but other blockbuster events at your local multiplex movie theatre, you can visit NCM Fathom Events.

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