Face it, you’re not likely to get another chance to see Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in D.C. for, oh…decades at least. It’s one of those back-canon works that, like Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus, almost never gets trotted out by theater companies other than the Royal Shakespeare. So if you have any interest in seeing all of Shakespeare’s plays on stage, or if you think you might at some point be interested in seeing all of Shakespeare’s plays on stage, you pretty much have to see it now at the Terrace Theater, and make plans to catch the equally rare King John next season at the Lansburgh.
@Text-Justified:Which means the Washington Post’s carping about a production it calls “a royal bore” and “a royal muddle” is essentially irrelevantand should be irrelevant, since those phrases occurred only to the paper’s headline writers, who presumably didn’t see the show, not to its reviewer, who did. For the record, the Style section’s aggressively attention-grabbing headlineswhich are frequently unrepresentative of the comparatively reasoned reviews they herald, and which unfortunately (being punchy and in 36-point type) exert far more influence with the publicare a much-discussed scandal in performing arts circles. You’d be well advised to ignore them, especially in this case, since they’re based on the first paragraph of a review that goes on to use words like “electrifying,” “fierce,” and “intriguing” to describe the principal performances.
Gregory Doran’s sumptuous, strikingly acted production at the Terrace Theater is, as it happens, pretty damn glorious, even if The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII (or, as it was known in the Bard’s lifetime, All Is True) isn’t one of the canon’s more coherently plotted dramas. It’s less a play than a parade of vivid scenes in which Henry (Paul Jesson), urged on by a scheming Cardinal Wolsey (Ian Hogg), decides to divest himself of aging Wife No. 1, Katherine of Aragon (Jane Lapotaire), so he can marry again and take another shot at producing a male heir. Wolsey, who hoped Henry would make a political alliance with his second marriage, is appalled when the king instead settles on Anne Boleyn, one of the queen’s ladies-in-waiting. But the cardinal’s plans to thwart the royal wedding by getting the pope to intercede backfire when they’re discovered by Henry. There’s more, but you get the general drift: shifting alliances, court intrigues, lots of folks sent to the Tower. If things don’t precisely go anywhere, there’s at least plenty of incident.
The script’s haphazard nature is usually blamed on John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s possible collaborator on this play (and on The Two Noble Kinsmen, which was also completed in 1613). The Bard was nearing retirement at that point, Fletcher was young, and the play may well have been a rush job, made to order as wedding entertainment for the daughter of King James I, who had succeeded Elizabeth I (Henry’s daughter) a few years earlier.
Not surprisingly, given that genesis, the play is longer on pageantry than on plot, and it is entirely uncritical of Henry, who’s depicted not as a randy, heir-obsessed Machiavellian, but as a well-meaning king occasionally led astray by scheming advisors. Jesson plays him as a gruffly imperious guy with down-to-earth tastes in women, and the director has permitted him to strap on an upward-curving foot-long phallus while attending an intimate little bacchanal at Cardinal Wolsey’s rectorynone of which keeps the underwritten character from fading into designer Robert Jones’ opulently gilded woodwork.
Lapotaire’s Queen Katherine, on the other hand, commands attention from the moment she enters the court one otherwise unremarkable day to discover a single throne centered in the space that once held two. Paling, then quickly settling onto a small stool nearby, the actress is breath-catchingly economical in depicting the canny queen’s thought processes. And in the fight that ensues, she is riveting, ferocious, and ultimately heartbreaking.
As Katherine’s chief antagonist, Hogg’s surprisingly libidinous Wolsey is a nasty, snarling, and somehow charming monster who seems eminently deserving of all the ill that eventually comes to him. And in lesser roles, Claire Marchionne makes an empathetic Anne Boleyn, worriedly touching her throat as a premonition of her future flashes through her mind in the play’s final seconds, while Paul Greenwood’s decent, doomed Buckingham exudes nobility as he’s marched off by the executioner. Also adept is David Collings as a resourceful, cannily insistent Archbishop of Canterbury.
The RSC’s jewel box of a production, with its shimmering golden throne room (which remains hidden, except for state occasions, behind huge iron doors) is at once lavish and spare, decorative and symbolic, classical and modern. And the action that takes place within its walls is vigorous and often enthralling, even if it sometimes feels patched together. In short, this Henry VIII is about as splendid a mounting as it is reasonable to expect of a play few D.C. theatergoers are ever likely to see again. If you’re any kind of Shakespeare collector, don’t even think of letting it slip away.
@Justified Drop:The RSC’s modernist Hamlet strikes me as less essential viewing, but if you’ve not seen the play recently, you’ll want to take my reservations with a grain of salt. This is my 24th encounter with the troubled prince (counting three film versions, though not Disney’s The Lion King), with my 23rd having been at the Keegan Theatre a mere 96 hours earlier. So I may simply have been Hamletted-out as I watched Alex Jennings strut and fret and don clown makeup at the Eisenhower. The actor was emoting showily on opening nightnever more so than when he instructed the players on the virtues of understatementand was only really persuasive when he was still and thoughtful, which Matthew Warchus’ manic staging rarely allowed him to be.
@Text-Justified:The evening begins strikingly with what amount to black-and-white home movies of Hamlet’s thoughtshe pictures himself as a toddler playing with his father in the snowas the metallic, amplified voice of his usurping uncle Claudius drones on in a wedding speech. Then, with a jazzy blare and a sudden upward sweep of walls, we’re at a dazzling reception, with men in tuxes and women in 1950s cocktail dresses whirling around the dance floor to a crooned pop song.
At one side table sits an ashen Edward Petherbridge as the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Mingling with the guests are trusting, happily oblivious Gertrude (played by Susannah York, who looks perhaps 15 years more mature than she did 35 years ago in the film Tom Jones) and the brusque Claudius that Paul Freeman has conceived as a kingly cross of Ed Asner and George C. Scott. And at center stage is the figure who most compels your attention all night: David Ryall’s dithering, well-meaning, heartbreakingly obtuse Polonius.
Warchus’ production is certainly attention-getting, with its pop ditties (the grave digger sings “September Song” as he’s unearthing Yorick’s skull), glistening revolvers, and tightly gripped pill bottles that spill during mad scenes. And the director has wisely pruned away all the political intrigue (Roderigo is nowhere to be seen) that might get in the way of the family drama suggested by that opening cinematic flourish.
But there’s nothing very heartfelt about this Hamlet’s rush to judgment. The evening feels less like classical tragedy than it does like a high-toned Peyton Place. And while the poetry rips trippingly off the tongues of cast members, the overall impression is of a series of striking imagesadmittedly more dramatically juxtaposed than the ones in Henry VIII, but similarly pageantlike. CP