Tudor Alert: A lean script, a lavish production, and directoral innovation rescue the second-best Shakespeare play.
Tudor Alert: A lean script, a lavish production, and directoral innovation rescue the second-best Shakespeare play.

When a rarity gets staged with this much panache, it’s pretty much must-see theater, so go ahead, feel free to get your tickets to the Folger Theatre’s slick, sumptuous Henry VIII right now. I’ll wait.

Hey, that was quick—almost as efficient as the lean edit they’re using at the Folger, where something like a third of the knotty politics of Henry’s reign have been dispensed with, and where a propulsive score, all kettledrums and choristers, helps keep things moving briskly along. (That some of the music is Henry’s, or inspired by it, just sweetens the mix.) What hasn’t been trimmed, by all indications, is the budget: Robert Richmond’s production is as sumptuous a thing as I’ve ever seen at the Folger, with actors wrapped in acres of brocades and velvets, courtesy of designer William Ivey Long, and the stage groaning under the weight of a set—cunningly built by Tony Cisek, eloquently lit by Klyph Stanford—whose layers of filigreed ironwork manage to suggest rank upon rank of palace passageways. It’s just the sort of place where a conspiratorial courtier might loiter, hoping to overhear something worth the risk.

Many a courtier and conspirator does this history play offer, too: Lawrence Redmond’s grizzled Norfolk and Todd Scofield’s watchful Suffolk, bridling under the weight of an ascendant king’s growing egotism; the noble Buckingham (a fine, fatherly Stephen Patrick Martin), outmaneuvered by that matchless schemer Wolsey (a sleek and vicious Anthony Cochrane), whose own downfall will come in its turn; Nathan James Bennett’s humble Cranmer, whose scholarly Protestantism will earn him a king’s ransom, but not until it nearly costs him his life.

Ian Merrill Peakes, a versatile fellow who’s done fine work at the Folger in everything from giddy French comedies (Marivaux’s The Game of Love and Chance) to inventive adaptations (a stirring Winter’s Tale update called Melissa Arctic), anchors the production as the monarch whose need for an heir gets tangled up with other, more hormonal considerations. It’s a virile, vigorous performance, peremptory and impetuous by turns, and there are passages too that remind me I like this actor best when he plays men who try their damnedest not to let their torments show. Uncertainty and pain and passion and even wonder flicker on his features in the king’s “unguarded” moments (all carefully calibrated, of course—it’s a performance, after all), and it can be intensely affecting. Watch him watch the lithe Anne Boleyn (the actor’s actual wife, Karen Peakes) from afar as she dances; observe as he bridles while canny Queen Katherine cross-examines a commoner whose bought-and-paid-for testimony threatens to condemn a nobleman who’s already on Henry’s blacklist.

And what a Katherine! Shakespeare and his contemporary John Fletcher (who scholars say contributed roughly a third of the text) give the lady considerable moral weight; she’s Henry’s wronged first queen, you’ll recall, married first to his doomed older brother and once his beloved consort, but mother only to a princess and a string of stillborn babes. That such a thing condemns her, this proud daughter of peerless Ferdinand and Isabella, to be discarded by a panic-stricken, Boleyn-besotted Henry is Katherine’s tragedy; her triumph, in this production, is that she’s embodied by Naomi Jacobson, who has never been finer. It’s a performance of rigor and authority in a role that ranks among Shakespeare’s most vibrant women, and the sureness and emotional conviction with which Jacobson navigates the whipsaw hairpins of the queen’s great confrontation scenes—one, a private conference with Wolsey and another cardinal, presumably imagined, the other seemingly taken directly from the record of Katherine’s impassioned defense of her marriage before a public tribunal—is downright thrilling.

The production’s other great success is a directorial innovation: the deployment of an impish Louis Butelli as Will Sommers, the king’s jester, who’s not in the original at all, but who here seems as essential as that dynamic musical underscoring, and as unifying an influence, too. He introduces the play with the usual prologue—”I come no more to make you laugh,” he warns us—and then he returns again and again, with magic tricks and conjurer’s flourishes, summoning scenes with an evocative gesture and banishing characters when their moment is done. He plays bit parts and fulcrum characters, too, from a too-knowing waiting-woman gossiping with Anne Boleyn to that crucial second cardinal, whose seeming independence is calculated to give the devious Wolsey cover to work Henry’s will.

That all of this rich stuff has been marshaled so masterfully in the service of what’s arguably second-best Shakespeare? Don’t let that trouble you. Sure, some of the political recaps can seem a little dry; sure, not every passage that strains to fly reaches takeoff speed.

But at evening’s end, when an archbishop and a king present a swaddled infant to the people who will one day be her subjects, and speak the name “Elizabeth,” the magic gathers. And in a speech as stirring as any battlefield soliloquy, Shakespeare (or maybe Fletcher, measuring up for once) has his churchman prophesy the virtues of Gloriana, describing the dawn of an age that was yet to come for him, but that would have been recent memory for the audience that first heard it. It must have been hair-raising for them. It’s pretty damn electrifying now.