The Folger Theater’s production of the oft-hidden “Henry VIII” is part of the happy hoopla surrounding the 500th anniversary of Henry VIII’s accession, along with the Vivat Rex! exhibit in the same building. I’ve seen the exhibit, and this past Saturday night, I was thrilled to take in the show. (There’s an official trailer here.)
Maybe it is out of superstition, since the Globe Theater burned down during a performance of “The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII” (or maybe because it’s a subject we’ve seen in a thousand different places so why should Shakespeare’s version stand out?) but the Shakespeare/John Fletcher take on the Tudors between the Duke of Buckingham’s arrest and Princess Elizabeth’s birth (spanning the dates from early 1521 to September 1533) is scarcely seen on the stage.
Since the play is called “Henry VIII,” you would expect the Big Guy to be the strongest character. Not so much. Henry, as played by Ian Merrill Peakes, has his intimidating moments and does a fair amount of storming the stage (and turning on the charm), but overall this is a more tame Henry than we might expect. This isn’t a slam against the terrific Peakes, but rather a fact of the character. Henry is the reason for the events in the play, but not usually the focus of the action. Plus, Shakespeare was not about to offend the memory of his patron: Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I.
Louis Butelli (who made me envision a hypothetic love child of Michael Stipe and a gangly Brad Pitt) is delightful as top jester Will Sommers, a character not in the original play. Sommers is the portal into the events: He plops down on the edge of the stage from time to time and uses puppets to clue us in to the coming drama, breaks that 4th wall regularly, and dons various other hats (literally) to play an old lady, a cardinal, and even Cromwell. See video of Butelli’s fool here.
Catherine of Aragon, as played by Naomi Jacobson, is both regal and grounded, has both gravity and sweetness. Her court scene puts the audience into, well, the courtroom audience and is one of the best moments of the play. Her downfall is, of course, nothing less than heartbreaking.
The undeniable standout, however, is Anthony Cochrane as Cardinal Wolsey. His strength and confidence are a marvel through most of the play, but it’s his breakdown that is a true work of art. When you’ve got the Royal Shakespeare Company on your resume, I expect no less! A true Renaissance man, Cochrane is also the composer and sound designer, and here I have to praise the powerful use of music in this “Henry VIII.”
I wish I could say good things about Karen Peakes, who plays a modern-day favorite from the Tudor era, Anne Boleyn. Whereas, say, Genevieve Bujold and Natalie Dormer really brought Anne’s charm, wit, and magnetism to audiences, Peakes is stiff as wood. Charmless. A real disappointment. Is this because she is opposite her real-life husband? Well, apparently they’ve shared the stage over a dozen times before, so someone must think this is a good idea. I’m not one of them, though.
The show’s outstanding and effective set design (below) is another star. The traditional Tudor design of the theater takes on a slightly dark and gothic tone with the iron side “curtains” and simple cross serving as a powerful centerpiece on the back wall. The huge iron chandelier above is also used as an acting space. The costumes are equally impressive (and heavy!); a true treat for the eyes. Here’s a 4-minute video on Ian Merrill Peakes’ costume.
Before the play began, and during intermission, it was a nice treat to pop into the Great Hall, just outside the theater doors, for another look at the Golden Gospels of Henry VIII and the rest of the Vivat Rex! exhibit. A true evening with Henry VIII it was, thanks to the Folger Theater, Shakespeare, and well, John Fletcher!
* The cast gives an awesome summary of the play in under a minute here.