Monday, January 6, 2014

When Shakespeare isn't really Shakespeare

Holbein's portrait is quite a bit better than Shakespeare's.

I'll say it right up front: Henry VIII, Shakespeare's "last play" - which recently closed at the Actors' Shakespeare Project - isn't really a Shakespeare play.  Indeed, it isn't a Shakespeare play by a long shot.

Yes, I know, there are occasional speeches by Shakespeare stuck in it, like raisins in a scone - excellent speeches, in fact; very tasty raisins (in a very dry scone).  Never mind their sweetness is slightly generic - we can imagine these soliloquies lifted wholesale from the mouths of other, greater characters, in other, greater plays (indeed, echoes of Shakespeare Past resound through Henry VIII). But we're still happy, given the dreadfulness of the rest of the script, to savor these outtakes, indeed any scraps from Shakespeare's talent that he may have sprinkled over John Fletcher's scribblings.

Yes - John Fletcher (that's him at right). He became the leading playwright of the King's Men after Shakespeare's retirement, and  Henry VIII is his play. Or rather it's his - I don't know, we don't have anything that matches the form of Henry VIII precisely anymore, although some contemporary modes come close. Henry is a kind of pageant, I suppose; perhaps even a revue, like the Ziegfeld Follies of 1613. Imagine a Tudor Esther Williams movie, in which we wade through a perfunctory, pasted-together plot for the chance to watch the Bard do the backstroke, and you kind of have the idea. 

John Fletcher
You see the text is explicitly structured to accommodate masques (a spectacular, ceremonial dance), along with parades of nobles, laden down with rhinestones and fur, and the occasional supernatural vision - indeed, we slowly realize these numbers are the main event, with Fletcher supplying the requisite introductions (textual analysis has demonstrated this pretty much beyond a doubt).  Oh, and when it comes to Shakespeare-that-isn't-Shakespeare, let's not forget the big showdown (Katharine of Aragon's self-defense) that's almost a word-for-word lift from a court transcript. Between all these set-pieces, you've got two thirds of this "play."

But every now and then a skit by Shakespeare is indeed sighted, styled like a parade float. And admittedly, these scenes have a weird meta appeal; there are hints of a distant, brilliant sophistication to what Shakespeare contributed to Henry VIII.

For the Bard was long used to working in a milieu in which a writer could be imprisoned, or even murdered, for his views - so the canon is marked by a fastidious political caution; a scrupulously applied veneer of plausible deniability encases every politically pointed idea Shakespeare ever expressed. And remember that Henry VIII is conceived as a celebration of the "big bang" of Tudor politics - Henry's seduction of Anne Boleyn (here "Bullen") and subsequent divorce of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon - which at the time could have been construed as a catastrophe if it hadn't (eventually) led to the reign of Elizabeth I. But then few modern audiences are fully aware of the decades of strife unleashed by Henry's marital maneuver: his own long, murderous matrimonial career, followed by the disastrous reign of Edward VII (anyone remember him?), the beheading of Lady Jane Grey, the bloody swing back to Catholicism under Mary, and even the surveillance state that rose under the nervous "Good Queen Bess" - these do not figure in PBS stylizations of the era. But of course such events would have been much on Shakespeare's mind, as he had spent his life picking his way through the minefield of the Tudor dynasty. So there was simply no way he was going to blow his cover now with anything like a thoughtful treatment of this particular episode  - hence the script's original sobriquet, "All is True," which openly signals that nothing in it is actually to be believed.

Thus Shakespeare's scenes are deliberately incoherent, but they're also curiously self-aware - they're consciously emptied of historical content, leaving just a grand gloss over what amounts to thin air; watching them is like coming upon a throne made entirely of varnish, designed for a monarch who is only a cipher.

Still, I have seen one production of Henry VIII - at the Stratford Festival in Canada - that came off to some degree because its lavish production matched (we imagined) the lustrously-wrought original version. The Actors' Shakespeare Project, however, lacks such resources - although they did pull out the traditional stops this time around, with credible period costumes by Tyler Kinney, and gestures toward courtly dance by choreographer Susan Dibble. These efforts were largely undone, however, by the company's general weakness in much of the traditional Shakespearean performance arsenal: few of its members can persuasively dance or sing in a period style. For unlike Shakespeare, these actors are armchair rebels - extravaganzas and stately tableaux just aren't in their blood; but such displays are basically what Henry VIII is all about.

Anne Bullen and Jane Foole from Henry VIII.

Instead, the company tried to force a few of their usual predilections onto the Fletch-speare amalgam that is Henry VIII.  Director Tina Packer flogged her "Women of Will" schtick a bit, and front-loaded the piece with a labored feminist trope: the play's "Prologue" here was a female jester (Bobbie Steinbach) modeled on the famous "Jane Foole," who was attached to the courts of Henry VIII  (through sixth wife Catherine Parr) and then Bloody Mary. This was a reach, but it was amiable enough professor-porn, I suppose; still, Steinbach couldn't do much with the concept, as Shakespeare's scenes only map obliquely to feminism - they mostly replay his own obsessions (with hints of Romeo and Juliet, The Winter's Tale, Taming of the Shrew, and other hits) without coming to any new thematic alignments.  I got the impression at times that Packer was half-attempting a kind of Henry V-style educational arc to the overall action, but again, the choppy text basically defeats this.

The actors did have a few moments, though - even if, as per usual at ASP, the cast was largely mis-cast.  Ross MacDonald was the obvious choice for Henry, but he was stuck with supporting roles, while Allyn Burrows, who essayed the eponymous monarch, would have made a far more effective Cardinal Wolsey (who works best as a closeted voluptuary).  Still, despite being miscast and coated with Dracula dust, Robert Walsh did a solid job with Wolsey's big soliloquies, which are all anybody remembers from this play anyhow. Craig Mathers likewise eventually came through with Buckingham's solos (don't bother trying to track this character's subplot, though). And while Tamara Hickey's Catherine grew too shrill by half, newcomer Kathryn Myles impressed as Anne Boleyn, despite the brevity of the role. Myles also benefited from the single Packer gambit that really worked - Anne's premonition of her own doom at the moment of her ascension.

So in the end, regarding Henry - it could have been better, but it arguably could have been worse, I suppose.  Packer's take amounted more to a box office strategy than a vision - she managed to nod to the feminists, the doublet-and-hose fans, and the History Channel all at once.

Which I guess put the show over. Even if it wasn't really Shakespeare.


  1. Come enjoy more Tudor madness at the Porpentine Players production of A Man for All Seasons opening this week. Compare Robert Bolt's young Henry with Fletcher/Shakespeare's.

  2. Okay, Geoff, I'll come see your show! But no advertisements on the blog! ;-)