Review: Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s Globe ★★☆☆☆

by Jim Keaveney

Henry VIII has found a further collaborator over 400 years after the original Globe Theatre burnt down during a performance of the play in 1613. This new production, directed by Amy Hodge, is billed as ‘written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, in collaboration with Hannah Khalil’.

The play covers the period immediately prior to Henry’s (Adam Gillen) divorce of his first wife, Katharine of Aragon (Bea Segura), and his marriage to Anne Boleyn (Janet Etuk), or Anne Bullen as she is referred to here, whilst also tracking the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey (Jamie Ballard).

Anna Savva and Adam Gillen. Photo: Marc Brenner

It feels like the Globe has deliberately chosen the Jubilee year to revive Henry VIII where ‘shows, pageants and sights of honour’ are proclaimed – and he is, after all, one of the most famous royals, even if it is one of Shakespeare’s lesser celebrated plays. Georgia Lowe decks the stage in regal purples and golds, with the royals all dressed in plush purples and the Globe’s wall receiving a gold-plating treatment. The use of the two colours is deliberately gaudy; there is a golden gun, golden toilet roll, a gold strap-on, proudly worn by Henry, and a 10ft long inflatable golden phallus that he runs across the stage with between his legs.

Gillen’s Henry is petulant and childlike, despite his sexual fascinations. At times he seems more of a bad-tempered boy-king than a tyrannical ruler, popping the pink balloons at a gender reveal party that didn’t provide him with the son he so desires. Segura has the most engaging performance, delivering a wronged queen who manages to keep her dignity amidst the chaos. However, other performances are uneven, and some actors struggle with projection.

Bea Segura. Photo: Marc Brenner

In the programme notes, Khalil details how she worked ‘collaboratively’ with Shakespeare by pulling together snippets of text from his plays and sonnets to put new words into the mouths of the characters – particularly female characters who were previously voiceless, such as Anne. It’s a tricky business and tricker when some of the lines that have been magpied are some of Shakespeare’s most famous.

“Uneasy is the head that wears a crown” and ‘”the lady doth protest too much, methinks” make their way into the text, while Princess Mary (Natasha Cottriall) embodies King Lear as she proclaims, “I will do such things— What they are, yet I know not, but they shall be. The terrors of the earth!” But it’s not exactly clear why these lines have been implanted in the text, other than to serve as a meta-reference to Shakespeare’s better works. The references jar in the moment and their only effect is to take us out of the play and to think of Henry IV, Lady Macbeth or King Lear.

Adam Gillen. Photo: Marc Brenner

Khalil has sought to reclaim the play’s narrative, sculpting it into an exploration of the female experience but it doesn’t feel like it has worked. Even the female character’s anthem, where they declare ‘we women’ as a rallying cry, is apologetic – ‘forgive us our opinions’ they sing. Meanwhile, a childbirth scene is played for laughs. It’s a production that knows what it wants to be but hasn’t quite followed through. That’s not fully on the cast or creative team though – it says something that one of England’s most famous kings makes for one of Shakespeare’s least popular plays.

Henry VIII is at Shakespeare’s Globe until 21 October

Jim Keaveney is the lead critic at The Understudy. He tweets occasionally from @understudyjim