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Anne Boleyn

12 November 13 words: Adrian Bhagat
A peculiar but engrossing historical play about the characters behind the Reformation

Anne Boleyn at the Lace Market Theatre. Photo by David Alderson

Image: David Alderson. Costumes by Barry Holland.

Anne Boleyn, by Howard Brenton was originally commissioned to be performed at Shakespeare's Globe in 2010. It presents a radically new image of the second wife to Henry VIII. For those of us who only got a comprehensive education, here's a quick history lesson scraped from Wikipedia: Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his brother but, as she did not bear him a son, he wanted to divorce her and marry his mistress, Anne Boleyn. As the Pope wasn't willing to grant the divorce, Henry married Anne (who was later beheaded for adultery and treason) and, encouraged by the writings of William Tyndale which stressed the primacy of kings over the papacy, initiated the Reformation, splitting the Church of England from Rome and making England into a Protestant country. This led to the dissolution of the monasteries and much turmoil until, later, James I produced the King James Bible to settle theological disputes and bring stability. Phew.

The play begins with some period dancing, which is obligatory for historical plays but does give you a chance to enjoy the Renaissance music. Impressively for a tiny theatre, this is performed live on a virginals (no sniggering, it's a sort of harpsichord thing). Although the play is presented in traditional dress, the language is decidedly modern, colloquial and even coarse at times. There's a lot of ribald humour including a discussion of Tudor contraceptive devices which gives flavour to the historical narrative.

Anne Boleyn at the Lace Market Theatre. Image by Focus And Shoot Photography
Image by Focus And Shoot Photography

Although Anne Boleyn was regarded by some in her time as a 'whore and a witch', she is known to have been a forceful, opinionated political operator. Brenton takes this further, making her the prime mover behind the Reformation and, consequently, a very significant figure in this country's history. Whether or not this revisionist portrayal carries any weight with historians, Kareena Sims does it justice with her excellent performance in the lead role, depicting Anne as having both seductive charm (see left) and deep religious conviction.

She's supported by a strong cast. Piotr Wisniewski was perhaps born to play the machinating Cardinal Wolsey. Jason Wrightam is excellent as the dark, scheming statesman Thomas Cromwell, whose spies and plots kept the court in a state of fear. Chris Ireson's beard plays the role of Henry VIII's beard with aplomb; the man behind it was also convincing as the larger than life king.

The play's scenes split between Henry and Anne's life and the reign of James I, who is shown attempting to uncover Boleyn's life and find her ghost, drawing religious inspiration from her as he tries on her dresses. Played by Gordon Cullen, James I is portrayed as a strange mixture of feckless teenager and theosophical thinker, dealing with religious leaders petulantly at one moment and dispensing wisdom the next.

With a cast of nearly thirty in full period dress accompanied by live music, this is a lavish and ambitious production for an amateur theatre, though a little let down by an unambitious set. It took me a while to warm to the play whose peculiarity I found disconcerting at first. However, it wasn't long before the intrigues and politics grabbed my interest, delivering a compelling evening of theatre.

Anne Boleyn runs at the Lace Market Theatre until Saturday 16 November 2013. Fans of plays about Henry VIII's wives get even more gratification from the Lace Market Theatre as their next offering is The Regina Monologues, which will be performed from 26 to 30 November.

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