STRATFORD, ON— The fate of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s late history Henry VIII has been tumultuous, to say the least. Cannon fire from the first production burned down the original Globe Theatre in 1613. Defying augury, the new Globe Theatre mounted a respectable but ultimately forgettable revival in 2010. Popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, Henry VIII has since sunk into obscurity. I count a mere four productions in the sixty-seven years since the Stratford Festival began.
But the latest revival, directed by Martha Henry, makes a strong and compelling case for this play. Wolf Hall has proved that Tudor drama is irresistible to contemporary audiences, and Shakespeare’s version is rich with theatrical pageantry, political intrigue, and a cast of dynamic personalities. Ever attentive to his own political circumstances, Shakespeare takes as his subject only Henry’s (Jonathan Goad) first two marriages, ending with his wedding to “Anne Bullen” (Alexandra Lainfiesta) and the christening of Elizabeth I.
And yet, the play does not sacrifice sympathy for Katherine (a wrenching Irene Poole) in its exoneration of the king. Henry has staged her revival in the intimate Studio Theatre, forcing us to focus on human sorrow rather than royal pomp. Henry’s attraction to Anne is figured not as ravenous sexuality but as a combination of romantic interest and political need, and he is thus heartbroken by the divorce, a victim like the rest of the machinations of history. It may not be factually accurate, but it’s riveting drama and reason enough to attend this year’s Stratford Festival.
Henry VIII runs through October 27th at the Studio Theatre. 34 George Street E. Stratford, ON. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission.