Let’s be honest: it’s a red flag when the most famous English writer of all time has a play about one of the most obsessed-over eras of English history and it almost never actually gets staged.
Covering vaguely the same period of time as Hilary Mantel’s much better ‘Wolf Hall’, ‘Henry VIII’ by Shakespeare plus collaborator John Fletcher packs in such greatest historical hits as the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his wooing of Anne Boleyn (here ‘Anne Bullen’) and his schism from the Catholic Church.
The problem is that when it was written, these events were still recent history. ‘Henry VIII’ is a propaganda play of sorts, offering a whitewashed account of some of the more tumultuous events in the life of the dad of the (relatively) recently deceased Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare actually wrote some great propaganda plays. But this is not one of them: it lacks the camp malevolence of ‘Richard III’, or the devastating human insight of ‘Richard II’. Productions of ‘Henry VIII’ have traditionally leant upon dazzling spectacle over psychological depth, and indeed the play’s biggest claim to fame is that a malfunctioning cannon special effect in a 1613 production burnt down the original Globe.
It’s reasonable, then, that director Amy Hodge and playwright Hannah Khalil have opted for a wilfully revisionist revival. Hodge all but directs it as a comedy, with Adam Gillen’s Henry a petulant, childlike oddball who in one retina-searingly memorable scene is trundled on sitting on a golden toilet, shaving his chest with an air of total befuddlement. Meanwhile, Wolsey’s debauched influence on the court is conveyed via… an enormous golden cock and balls that Jamie Ballard’s Cardinal drops from the musicians’ gallery. Khalil is billed as the ‘third collaborator’ here, having free rein, and putting a greater focus on the female characters, especially via a series of songs with lyrics substantially cobbled together from other more famous Shakespeare plays.
The trouble is, an ironic, wilfully ersatz riff on a play only really works if the play is a) well-known and b) good. You could give ‘Hamlet’ this sort of subversive remix and it might still be great. But this is quite probably the first and only time the audience is going to see ‘Henry VIII’ and taking the piss out of it – while in some ways absolutely fair enough – just leaves it looking like a really weird piece of programming. It is simply not a good enough play to stand up to this sort of pummelling.
Ultimately I can’t help but think that if you’re going to stage ‘Henry VIII’ for a mass audience you need to grit your teeth and flatter it, not get bogged down in metatextual jiggery-pokery. You can argue that the Globe’s mission to explore all of Shakespeare’s work should make it an exception, but really I think that if you don’t have faith in the play, perhaps it’s not worth staging.