The prop departments must be confused. Nobody asks for a severed head for years, and suddenly everyone wants one. Whether they’re being tossed around in Stratford, lopped off in the Olivier or held up for general view at the Globe, the theatrical beheading is this season’s must have.
Thankfully there’s more to this production at the Globe than a bit of gore to shock the school trips. Mainly, of course, there’s the star of the show, who is best known for driving fast round East London to foil bomb plots and executing Russian spies in Battersea Power Station. Thankfully for theatregoers, spies at the BBC seem to suffer an alarming attrition rate, which means that not only do we get Rupert Penry-Jones at the Royal Court for Christmas, but we get Miranda Raison at the Globe in late summer. But her chances of survival as one of Henry VIII’s wives don’t look much better than they did at Spooks.
Howard Brenton (who also wrote a bunch of Spooks episodes – fact of the day) has reimagined Anne Boleyn as a religious pioneer and a Protestant martyr with Thomas Cromwell as her comrade turned provocateur turned executioner. All of this is bookended by quite lengthy scenes following James I as he tries to unite England’s warring religious factions, mostly through taking the piss out of them.
In what looks like an effort to stop his play turning into a low budget version of The Tudors, Brenton upends the traditional interpretation (that religion was twisted to serve Henry’s lust) in favour of a much more sympathetic interpretation for Anne (that lust was twisted to serve Anne’s religion). Anne is rehabilitated from manipulative harlot to martyred heroine.
Ms Raison delivers this adeptly, convincingly and winningly fleshing out the character of Anne. The rest of the characters receive no such makeover, giving the wider cast less to work with: Cromwell is the pantomime villain, Wolsey is fat and indignant and Henry is the lusty playboy we’ve seen a dozen times before.
The few years in which Anne Boleyn was the focus of Henry VIII’s affections must be the most oft portrayed period in English history. Brenton’s play might be more fiction than historical fiction, but it is a compelling and convincing reinvention of this controversial character and one in which Miranda Raison demonstrates herself a highly capable stage actor.