By Ruth Ross
Because Henry VIII is rarely performed, there are some things you probably don't know about it. For one, William Shakespeare is not its lone author; he probably collaborated with John Fletcher on it. Too, the play was not published form 1623, seven years after Shakespeare died. And during a 1613 performance, a spark from a cannon shot off to provide sound effects ignited the Globe Theatre's thatch roof, burning the iconic building to the ground.
Because it is about an actual English monarch, Henry VIII counts as a "history play," similar to Richard II or III. As presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey, however, it would be more appropriate to call it Katherine of Aragon, after the feisty, spirited woman Henry divorced so he could marry a much-younger (more fertile) woman, a role so magnificently portrayed by Jessica Wortham (Above, right, with Philip Goodwin and Matthew Simpson). This is not to say that the rest of the company is second rate, but Wortham so dominates the stage, physically and emotionally, that she takes one's breath away!
Henry VIII focuses on the first two wives of Henry's six, specifically, his move to annul his marriage to Katherine and wed Anne Bullen, severing the English church from Rome and installing himself as its religious head—a move stage-managed by the wily, power-hungry Cardinal Wolsey and decried by the Bishop of Winchester as destructive to English society (turns out he was right). Henry's reason to divorce after a 20-year marriage to the widow of his dead older brother Arthur because his "conscience: has bothered him (and God has deprived him of a son) rings hollow, given that Anne Bullen, a commoner, is no match for Katherine, the royal daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain. That Henry VII turns out to be a valentine to Elizabeth I, the infant baptized in the final scene and whose rosy future is "predicted" by the Archbishop of Canterbury—even though Elizabeth I has been dead for a decade before the play's performance—shows that kissing up to the royal house to ensure support for acting company operating the Globe Theatre never goes out of style, no matter who the monarch may be.
Charlie Calvert 'spare but functional set is enhanced by sumptuous costumes of luxurious fabrics and lush "fur" designed by Hugh Hanson, atmospheric lighting by Michael Giannitti and 17th century music put together by Steven L. Beckel to provide a background against which these momentous deeds unfold. Paul Mullins' taut direction keeps things moving along at a steady clip, overcoming the boredom of long speeches of exposition or reportage of what has been happening offstage.
As always, the company of actors turns in splendid performances. Chief of these is Philip Goodwin as the devious, power-seeking Cardinal Wolsey (left, with David Foubert as Henry VIII), who is not above going to the Pope behind his sovereign's back during the divorce proceedings. Resplendent in red clerical attire, he provides the one spot of riveting color among the black, gray and gold of the other costumes, and we cannot take our eyes off him.
That king, played by David Foubert, is a wheeler-dealer himself, especially in the scene where he woos Anne Bullen (girlish Katie Wieland), but he does show a more sympathetic side when voicing regret for abandoning a faithful and loving wife of almost two decades.
In direct contrast to both Anne and Henry, Jessica Wortham's Katherine displays more passion, spirit and humanity than does the entire court combined. When we first meet her, she is a trusted advisor to her husband, but once set aside, she becomes a virago, railing against her situation, reminding everyone that the royal blood of Spain flows through her veins and decrying the fact that she is totally alone in England, with neither friends nor supporters. Her heartbreaking plight makes Henry look even more silly and self-absorbed.
As the Lord Chamberlain , Michael Early's sonorous voice projects a sense of authority, just as Eric Hoffmann's Falstaff-like bawdy demeanor (and girth) as Lord Sands disguises a conniving nature. Thomas Michael Hammond's role as Prologue playfully entices us into the play, only to express his outrage as Duke of Buckingham when arrested for treason and sentenced to execution. His defense of the king who betrayed him is emblematic of everything we would expect from a loyal aristocrat. (Above L-R: Michael Early, Eric Hoffmann, Damien Baldet, Matt Sullivan)
Clark Scott Carmichael gives fine support as Thomas Cranmer, Henry's yes-man Archbishop of Canterbury, as do Alexander Korman (Sir Thomas Lovell), Matthew Simpson (Thomas Cromwell) and Joseph Hamel (as Henry's sober secretary Stephen Gardiner later appointed Bishop of Winchester who predicts civil unrest resulting from the "Lutheranism" Henry is about to perpetrate).
The Prologue's opening speech foretells that Henry VIII will depict a situation where "mightiness meets misery," and nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, almost everyone (except, perhaps, the babe Elizabeth) will end up miserable, some of them in the future after the play has ended: Cranmer will be burned at stake by Henry's daughter, the "bloody" Roman Catholic Queen Mary; Anne will have her head chopped off; Katherine will die alone and Henry's sole male heir, Edward VI, will die childless at the age of 16, thus making way for the great Elizabeth I who had an age named after her and became one of the greatest monarchs in history.
Henry VIII may not be a Shakespearean masterpiece, but the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey's masterful production gives life to the words beyond the page. The superb acting, directing and production values are illustrative of the great theater brought to us by this celebrated troupe for over half a century.
Henry VIII will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, 36 Madison Ave., Madison (on the campus of Drew University) through November 9. For information and tickets, visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online or call the box office at 973.408.5600.