Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

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BBC Radio 3, 19 April 2009
This revival of Shakespeare's last play, written in collaboration with John Fletcher and produced by Radio 3 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of King Henry VIII's accession to the throne, focused very much on the instability of political life. Henry (Matthew Marsh) was a self-adoring, dominant personality, fond of the sound of his own voice and profoundly mistrustful of those around him. Although convinced of his own judgement, he never had sufficient self-confidence to understand that his advisors were for the most part acting in his own best interests. As a result he became increasingly likely to turn on them, or suspect their motives.
At the same time Henry considered himself a great lover who could readily attract anyone he wished. Although married to Katharine (Yolanda Vasquez) for nearly twenty years, he had tired of her company (due in no small part to their inability to produce a son). His roving eye turned to Anne Boleyn (Dormula Hyer) a young, flighty woman with no real interest in becoming queen. However no one could say no to the king, so she agreed to marry. Henry seemed to have all he wanted - power, beauty and an attractive little daughter (who would later become Queen Elizabeth).
However this production's adapter/director Jeremy Mortimer showed that all was not well within the British state. Deprived of  any meaningful role within the state, Henry's advisors jockeyed for power, frequently accusing one another of treachery if they felt that one person was becoming too powerful. The arch-manipulator was Cardinal Wolsey (Patrick Malahide), a smooth-talking rogue with a slight south-western burr, who rode roughshod over his fellow-nobles in pursuit of power. However he was eventually hoist by his own petard, as it was discovered that he had been conniving with the Catholic Church to prevent Henry divorcing Katharine. Wolsey didn't really believe in Catholicism; he just believed that opposing the King would be the most expedient course to follow. As it turned out, he was guilty of a grave misjudgment, much to his fellow-nobles' glee. Malahide delivered a long speech bemoaning his fate yet accepting that it was part of politics under a monarch who allowed no one any freedom of thought. Archbishop Cranmer (Adam Godley) also experienced this first-hand, as he was nearly condemned to death as a result of a plot concocted by his rivals. He only escaped on account of a royal pardon. Given Henry's mercurial nature, however, there was no guarantee that this meant very much: Cranmer could easily fall into disfavour. Godley's portrayal of the gentle, soft-voiced archbishop contrasted with the King's dogmatic nature.
Vasquez was quite outstanding as Katharine; like Malvolio in Twelfth Night she was "madly used" as she was cast off like an old shoe and condemned to live in perpetual isolation. Nevertheless she showed admirable restraint as she endured her sufferings in the belief that she would be forgiven at the point of death.
King Henry VIII ended somewhat incongruously with Princess Elizabeth's christening, providing the excuse for a piece of overt Tudor propaganda as the characters look forward to a new golden age when Britain will become great once again. All Henry's political and personal misdemeanours were conveniently forgotten as he was celebrated as the father of the Virgin Queen. In terms of Shakespeare's life this endng seemed coherent enough, as the ageing dramatist evokes an era when he achieved fame and fortune at the Globe Theatre and performed in front of the queen. By evoking the queen's birth, he also reminds us of his contribution to British drama.
Mortimer's production of one of Shakespeare's lesser-known works was consistently enthralling, performed by a hand-picked cast who really knew how to make his speeches come alive. I earnestly hope it will be repeaed in the future.