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Archive for Characters at court

Shakespeare’s Secret

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!

* A few glimpses of the play can be seen in a video review at the bottom of this page, and in the official trailer.

* The cast gives an awesome summary of the play in under a minute here.


Well done, “Cromwell”

Now that the Emmy nominations have been announced, and Showtime’s “The Tudors” has been honored with four nomination (cinematography, art direction, costumes, and hair), we are reminded of some of the fantastic performances by the talented actors in this series.

One fan favorite is James Frain as Thomas Cromwell. Prior to “The Tudors,” I wonder how many of us really empathized with Henry’s right-hand man. However, Frain’s performance (and his uncanny ability to disappear into his roles) drove home the point that this ambitious social climber was simply doing his job. And that wasn’t an easy task, when your boss changed his mind about what was good/bad more often than he changed his doublet and hose.

Take a trip down memory lane with Frain/Cromwell, and Coldplay of course, since “Viva La Vida” is used for about 95% of these Tudor YouTube videos. Hey, it works! A bit frenetic at first, but a reminder of the executions Cromwell pulled off (out of necessity). You can surely guess how it all wraps up.

Mean Girl

Mean Girls

Image by Migraine Chick via Flickr

Yet another prominent Anne of the Tudor era was Anne Stanhope, who became Anne Seymour, Duchess of Somerset, when she married the comparatively mild-mannered Edward Seymour.  She was ambitious and a smart cookie, but certainly rhymed with “witch” by all accounts. The Duchess of Somerset fancied herself the most powerful lady in the land when her husband became the protector of young Eddie VI. If Edward was sort-of the king, Anne figured she was sort-of the queen. 

Hold on, Sally, not so fast: Turns out the lady was still outranked by former queen Catherine Parr (and also by the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth, as well as Anne of Cleves). Catherine was now married to The Other Seymour Dude. Yes, about three months after Henry VIII became history, his widow married that slimy flirt, Thomas Seymour. Although she was no longer queen on paper, she was rolling in the late king’s dough and was expressedly elevated to that high former position as per his will. She was even still allowed to wear the “queen’s jewels” until Eddie should get himself a bride in the future. (That didn’t happen.)

This made Anne Seymour seethe! She was not about to lie down and let that happen, so she stamped her feet and demanded she should have them instead. It was a stalemate for a month or so, with neither lady decked out in the goods. When Catherine finally showed up at court again, she [within her rights] slyly suggested that the Duchess attend to her train. Anne said “Absolutely not!” and gave as her reason that Catherine was the lowly wife of her husband’s little brother. Nice.

Eventually, the noble fishwife convinced her husband to notify Catherine via letter that she was not to have the jewels, period, end of story. Accustomed to being treated like a doormat by the Duchess, he agreed. No surprise, then, that Catherine Parr came to refer to Anne Seymour as “that hell.” I can think of a few names that would have been more effective.

Let’s Make a Date


Do you share a birthday or anniversary with a member of the Tudor clan? (I do! Mary Queen of Scots and I were both born on 8 December.) Check the lists below to find out if you have more in common with the monarchs and their gang that you’d thought …

Tudor monarchs

  • Henry VII — 28 January
  • Henry VIII — 28 June
  • Edward VI — 12 October
  • Lady Jane Grey — sometime in October
  • Mary I — 18 February
  • Elizabeth I — 7 September

Other figures

  • Mary Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister) — 18 March
  • Margaret Tudor (Henry VIII’s sister) — 29 November
  • Arthur Tudor (Henry’s older brother) — September 20
  • Mary Queen of Scots — 8 December
  • Catherine of Aragon — 16 December
  • Anne Boleyn — birthday unknown
  • Jane Seymour — birthday unknown
  • Anne of Cleves — 22 September
  • Katherine Howard — birthday unknown
  • Catherine Parr — 11 November
  • Thomas More — 7 February
  • Henry Fitzroy (Henry VIII’s bastard son) — 15 June
  • Thomas Cranmer — 2 July
  • Phillip II — 21 May
  • William Cecil, Lord Burghley — 13 September


  • Henry VII and Elizabeth of York — 18 January
  • Arthur Tudor and Catherine of Aragon — 14 November
  • Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon — 11 June
  • Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn — 25 January
  • Henry VIII and Jane Seymour — 30 May
  • Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves — 6 January
  • Henry VIII and Katherine Howard — 28 July
  • Henry VIII and Catherine Parr — 12 July
  • Mary Tudor and Louis VII of France — 9 October
  • Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon — 13 May
  • Margaret Tudor and James IV of Scotland — 8 August 
  • Mary I and Phillip II — 25 July
  • Mary Queen of Scots and the Dauphin Francis of France — 24 April
  • Mary Queen of Scots and Lord Darnley — 29 July
  • Lady Jane Grey and Guilford Dudley — 21 May

A Truly Colorful Courtier

Han Solo

Image via Wikipedia

Last night I rewatched the season three finale of “The Tudors,” as I’m counting down the days until the new and final season starts. My husband drifted into the room as Alan van Sprang and his eye patch drifted onto the screen. He watched for a few minutes and said, “Well he’s like the Han Solo of this production, isn’t he?”

Van Sprang does bring a certain charisma to the Showtime version of history. He seems as though he’s about to start swashbuckling at any moment, and then go off for a few beers with his friend D’artagnan. But who was the real Sir Francis Bryan?

Briefly, Bryan really was quite a character! He dressed sumptuously and spoke his mind. A womanizer with a questionable moral compass, he was an intellectual and poet (came in handy for the womanizing, I’m sure), as well as a translator, sailor, soldier, and political shining star. Most importantly, he was a favorite of Henry VIII.

He’d first come to court in the early 1500s but was kicked out in 1519, came back like a boomerang as a member of the Privy Chamber, and was again kicked out in 1526 along with many other Privy Chamber gents. Cardinal Wolsey was behind this reduction in force, as he wanted to limit the number of enemies he had at court.

In 1536, Bryan and Thomas Cromwell schemed together to off Anne Boleyn (Bryan’s cousin), a move that earned Bryan the nickname “The Vicar of Hell.” He later rose to the rank of Gentleman of the Privy Chamber (i.e., “important nobleman who had access to the king personally,” not to be confused with the “groom of the stool” in the privy chamber, who had access to the king’s bottom and what came out of it). When Cromwell decided to clean house, he kicked Bryan to the curb, but the dashing rogue bounced back again and went on to a distinguished career in sailing and diplomacy.

If the real Sir Francis Bryan weren’t colorful enough, it turns out that his eye patch isn’t just a fabrication of Showtime’s costume department. He really did lose his eye while jousting at Greenwich. I would think losing your eye in a joust earned a certain level of props at a 16th century court, especially when you could still score so easily in other areas.

So yes, in Sir Francis Bryan we have a disguished man of letters, languages, politics, and ambition — but we can also cerrtainly view him as a delicious scoundrel.  I’d bet, like Han Solo, he’d appreciate it.