Henry VIII, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival at the University Theatre Main Stage, University of Colorado, Boulder, 20 June-16 August 2008.

Bill Gelber
Texas Tech University

Bill Gelber. "Henry VIII, presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival at the University Theatre Main Stage, University of Colorado, Boulder.". Early Modern Literary Studies 14.2/Special Issue 17 (September, 2008) 22.1-13 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/14-2/revgelbe.html>

    Directed by James Symons; Dramaturg/Assistant Director Elizabeth A. Wightman; Scenic Designer Fred M. Duer; Costume Designer Richard E. Donnelly; Lighting Designer Jane Spencer; Sound Designer Kevin Dunayer; Voice, Speech and Text Coach Sara Phillips; Choreographer Penny Walrath Cole. With Julian López-Morillas as Cardinal Wolsey; Chip Persons as the Duke of Norfolk; Jonathan Dickson as Sir Thomas Lovell; Noel Johnston as Sir Nicholas Vaux, Griffith, and Doctor Butts; Gary Wright as the Duke of Buckingham and Sir Anthony Denny; Sam Sandoe as the Duke of Suffolk; Joey Andenucio as the Sergeant-at-Arms, Cardinal Campeius, Messenger, Keeper, Garter and Guard; Sean Tarrant as King Henry the Eighth; Mare Trevathan as Queen Katherine; Jonathan Hicks as Buckingham’s Steward, Cromwell and Masquer; Bob Buckley as Lord Chamberlain; Earl Kim as Lord Sandys and Ambassador Capucius; Megan Pearl Smith as Anne Bullen; Zachary M. Andrews as First Tradesman, Bishop and Masquer; Rob Hille as Second Tradesman, Porter’s Man and Guard; Nathan Cooper as Gardiner, Attendant, and Bishop; Anne Sandoe as Lady Companion to Anne, Sam Misner as Verger, Earl of Surrey and Attendant; Lisa Morse as Tradesman’s Wife and Lady in Waiting; Zachary M. Andrews as Cranmer, Bishop and Masquer; and Emily Schmidt-Beuchat as Lady in Waiting.

  1. The performance of Henry VIII on August 2 was the fiftieth anniversary, to the day, of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s first performance on the indoor stage at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The play had been produced once before by the Festival in 1971. One of the first images that stuck the audience was that of the costuming by Richard E. Donnelly, who had chosen to frame the face of each actor through the use of the color palette of the period around the head and shoulders, but then to bleach away, as it were, the rest of the costume, which nevertheless retained its proper historical silhouette without paint. (For example, Henry’s hat was brown and his coat shoulders and chest brown or yellow as well, but the rest of the costume was white.) This would seem on the surface to be disconcerting, but it actually suggested that the actors would be lost in a profusion of color if the full range of period tones were realized and that the audience would better heed the words of the characters as they were pronounced from only a section of the completed portrait.

  2. Henry VIII began, not with the Prologue/Chorus, but with a mime in which Cardinal Wolsey was dressed in his ecclesiastical robes by his servants. This led directly into the scene between Buckingham and Norfolk in which the former voiced his worries about the power the Cardinal had built in the court, and we realized that Woolsey was planning his downfall. (Buckingham’s—and Shakespeare’s—use of the word “prisoner” to excuse his absence from the ceremony of the Field of the Cloth of Gold was obviously foreshadowing: “An untimely ague / Stay’d me a prisoner in my chamber…”, 1.1.4-5.) Gary Wright made a fine Buckingham, proud, heroic and bitter towards the Cardinal, but it was Henry, young and virile, who physically towered over the others and often openly scoffed at their suggestions for his governance.

  3. Henry was played by Sean Tarrant as a figure based more on the character by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors than on Holbein’s famous portrait, and the director and actors, to the audience’s obvious enjoyment, spared no chance to play ironically on the lines that suggested political hypocrisy. It was clear from his attitude that he was both aware of the arguments around him and two steps ahead of them, so that as he listened he seemed already bored and impatient with what was being said. He really came to life in the masque/dance which developed the early relationship between Henry and Anne, with Wolsey looking on approvingly at a scene that he would later live to regret. Megan Pearl Smith as Anne seemed to take instantly to the King and played the combination of self-assurance and coquettishness guaranteed to attract him.

  4. Buckingham’s fall, after he is arrested and tried for high treason, is the kind of scene that an actor revels in, and Wright was no exception here. He made one regret the passing of this character as one might Mercutio in the center of Romeo and Juliet, and his end was just as portentous of what was to come for others in the play. The first act of this production ended with Act II, iv, and Henry, alone, calling for his well-beloved servant, Cranmer, a figure who would be instrumental in the events to follow.

  5. The second act opened with Queen Katherine being serenaded by her own Lady in Waiting, Anne Boleyn (Bullen here), who played the lute to soothe her before she was brought before the court. It was a lovely scene, well sung and played by Smith, and seemed placed as the calm before the political storm to come.

  6. In the two best set pieces, the trial of Queen Katherine and the end of Cardinal Wolsey, the actors delivered superbly. Queen Katherine, played by Mare Trevathan with a “Spanish” accent befitting the origins of the character, was very moving throughout the play as she slowly realized that she had lost the love of her king. Her trial scene was as powerful as that of Hermione’s in The Winter’s Tale, and the actress was every inch the Queen required of the role. Her last scene, in which her life began to fade, was also poignant in part because of the actress’s ability to make us care for a character who seemed out of place not only by birth but from the sordidness of the English court.

  7. As Cardinal Wolsey, the excellent Julian López-Morillas, a large man with a hawk nose and a full head of white hair, played his scenes with Richard III-like aplomb and, in his final moments let loose a series of superb farewell speeches and exited to well-deserved applause. His downfall at the hands of “one woman,” was thrilling (he spit those two words out venomously, as if they were literally poisoning him).

  8. Though the play lagged slightly after this, there was humor to be found in the scene in which Henry presented his new baby girl to the court. Henry carried the new child with some affection, carefully displaying it to the crowd (characters on the forestage and, by implication, the audience watching the performance). There was no indication at that point of his disappointment in the gender of his progeny, but much was made of the possible future of this infant Elizabeth I (Shakespeare blatantly appealing to his own monarch in these speeches of praise).

  9. The climax of the production was an interpolated mime that bookended the opening, and also foreshadowed the characters’ future: a harrowing image of Anne, lit from the shoulders up, terrified that she would be punished for giving Henry a boy by losing to the chopping block the very features which were highlighted.

  10. Scene changes were handled very quickly on the unit set, which contained levels and stairs and an “inner below” door. This door was sometimes covered by a banner (such as a golden rose on a red field) which was flown in along with other scrim and dressing to simply indicate changes of place. The lighting, sound, and settings all added to the swiftness with which scene followed scene, which somewhat covered for the fact that the latter half, after the exit of Wolsey, did not hold up nearly as well as the former. This was especially true of the Cranmer trial scene, which seemed a repeat of earlier events with different characters, but was necessary to show the difference between Henry’s treatment of this character and Buckingham. This seemed more the fault of the author(s) rather than the company.

  11. All in all the play seemed, based on its set pieces and the way they were performed, to have been authored at least in part by Shakespeare, and was realized in a manner that did some service to the idea that Shakespeare was present at its inception.

  12. Works Cited

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2008-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).