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A CurtainUp London Review
Shakespeare's Henry VIII

by Joseph Green

The Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry VIII, subtitled All Is True, opened at the Young Vic Theatre (just down the street from the now dark Old Vic) on February 18 following its initial production at the RSC's Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 1996.

In June 1613, it was playing at the "old" Globe Theatre on the South Bank in London when the thatched roof covering the stage caught fire and the theatre burned down! (Fortunately, the NEW Globe, situated some 200 yards from the site of its namesake, has a modern sprinkler system installed in its modern thatched roof.)

The fire, according to one viewer of the day, started when the discharge of a firearm landed in the thatching, speaks to the pageantry of the Bard's final play. The spectator notes that the piece "was set forth with many extraordinary circumstances of pomp and majesty, even to the matting of the stage, the Knights of the Order, with their embroidered coats and the like: sufficient in truth within a while to make greatness very familiar, if not ridiculous..."

And Gregory Doran's production certainly uses that pageantry to great effect. Robert Jones has designed an imaginative series of rolling tableaux appearing from what would have been the "inner below" which evolve into the masques that the play calls for and which bookend the evening. Not less impressive are Jones' costumes -- they certainly equal the splendour of the 1613 description.

But what we have in this Henry VIII is rather a hodge-podge of dramaturgy. Indeed, the authorship of the piece has been variously ascribed to John Fletcher and Philip Massinger as well as to Shakespeare. Whether a collaboration between and amongst these three, or whether the play as we have it now is Shakespeare's added to by Fletcher provides little insight into the mediocrity of its stagecraft.

That aside, this production offers sufficient visual delight and strong performances to justify the three plus hours that it takes for Henry to rid himself of Katherine and to see the birth of his daughter Elizabeth by Anne. (Those familiar with the piece will recall that only two of Henry's wives appear and that the focus of the play is on the break with Rome and the concomitant creation of the Church of England.) Of particular note are the performances of Paul Jesson as King Henry who looks like he stepped out a portrait frame and of Jane Lapotaire as Queen Katherine. The latter was the highlight of the evening -- a strong and touching rendering of a most ill used queen. Less effective was Claire Marchionne's Lady Anne.

However, the general level of performance was certainly up to the standards audiences have come to expect from one of the world's premiere repertory companies.

Henry VIII or All Is True
by William Shakespeare (and either/or John Fletcher and Philip Massinger)
Directed by Gregory Doran
Designed by Robert Jones
Music by John Carr
Young Vic Theatre, The Cut London SE1 8LZ (0171-928-6363)

Seen first week of February by Joseph Green

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© Elyse Sommer, March 1998