Shakespeare wrote Henry VIII in 1612 or 1613, probably in collaboration with John Fletcher, another playwright. The events of the history play date from an era not long before Shakespeare’s birth, and the work — known originally and hyperbolically as All Is True — chronicled events that were still vivid in England’s cultural memory. The scandalous marriage of Henry to Anne Boleyn produced Elizabeth I, the queen who ruled the nation for nearly a half-century. She had died a decade before All Is True was produced, but Elizabeth was an honored ruler, and her legacy was beloved by the population. But the strife surrounding Henry’s divorce of his first wife, Queen Katherine, shattered relations with the Roman Catholic Church and led to the establishment of the Church of England with Henry as its supreme leader.
The veneration of nobility and the intrigue around religion and politics, as well as an appetite for pomp and circumstance, certainly made this script one that the citizens of London loved. The play, rife with plots, pageantry and ceremonies, had a long history of extravagant production well into the 19th century. But for the past 150 years it’s rarely been staged. In fact, Brian Isaac Phillips, who directed the production currently onstage at Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, running for three weeks, speculates that this might be the work’s premiere in Cincinnati. What took it so long?
The patchwork script by multiple writers contains scenes of great power and feeling, but others that are confusing, melodramatic and tedious. Henry VIII tells three stories: Henry’s willful decision to set aside Katherine, who failed to produce a male heir, fueled by his affair with Anne Boleyn; the undermining and downfall of the manipulative Cardinal Wolsey by the lords who envied his influence on the King; and a failed attack on Thomas Cranmer, Henry’s hand-picked Archbishop of Canterbury. There are no heroes here. Everyone is a political schemer.
The work’s past popularity was premised on lavish staging of coronations and public spectacles. Although Heidi Jo Scheimer’s richly detailed costumes recreate the glory of the period, Cincinnati Shakespeare’s modest stage is a challenging venue for such a story. Even using 17 actors, scenes with characters ranged up and down the side aisles often feel sparse. Andrew Hungerford’s scenic design is functional, an array of sliding wooden panels with Tudor arches suggesting paneled chambers and cathedral walls. But what is revealed when they open is seldom as splendid as was originally conceived.
That places the burden of attraction on the players enacting a set of disjointed tales about people whom modern audiences barely know. Jim Hopkins’s Henry is full of bluster and arrogance; he is a dominant, boisterous physical presence, every bit the absolute monarch. But the role offers little chance for any evolution of feeling — he falls in love with Anne (Jolin Polasek) in the blink of an eye; he admires Katherine (Kelly Mengelkoch), but simply insists she has to go. There’s little in the way of passion for today’s audience.
Mengelkoch offers the production’s most deeply felt, fully realized performance, especially heartfelt speeches when she is summoned before a religious court concerning Henry’s desire for a divorce. Speaking with a Spanish accent (Katherine’s father was King of Spain), Mengelkoch clearly and emotionally delineates the Queen’s nobility and conveys the indignity to which she is subjected. Polasek’s Anne is lovely but can offer little sense of her ambition or her willing submission to the King’s advances. (The play ends before Anne’s downfall and execution, events perhaps anticipated by contemporary audiences. Despite being called “All Is True,” the play feels like a more sanitized retelling of Henry’s behavior.)
Barry Mulholland offers a bloodless characterization of the scheming Wolsey. His downfall, plotted by a group of lords who are indistinguishable from one another, seems both too easy and without much challenge. One might ask why it didn’t it happen sooner. Mulholland delivers a fine speech when Wolsey been undermined and feels abandoned — “Had I but served my God with half the zeal/I served my king, he would not in mine age/Have left me naked to mine enemies” — but prior evidence of his villainous zeal is assumed rather than shown.
Henry VIII is produced so rarely that, in 25 years of reviewing theater, it’s the first time I’ve seen it. I’m grateful to Cincinnati Shakespeare for offering it. (With two final works, they will complete the full canon of Shakespeare’s plays in 2014.) But I’m not yearning to see this one again.
HENRY VIII: ALL IS TRUE , presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Feb. 5. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here .