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Shakespeare wrote King Henry VII in collaboration with John Fletcher near the end of his career. The play is produced infrequently, and it is not of the highest quality. Shakespeare’s Globe staged the play this year and decided that one collaborator was not enough and it has provided Shakespeare with a third one. The current collaborator is Hannah Khalil who tells us that her “brief was to sculpt the play into an exploration of the female experience.”
She did some pruning and stitching of lines from Shakespeare’s 37 plays and 154 sonnets “to tell a story that feels most relevant to now.” Some of her changes are obvious but most of them escaped me.
Khalil dispenses with the turgid Prologue and replaces it with a woman strumming a guitar and singing Sonnet 116 which is a beautiful paean to the glory of love, permanent and unalterable. “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments.” Henry VIII had six wives so the idea that love “bears it out even to the edge of doom” has no application to him. But reminding us of the ideal or perfect love compared to what Henry did is salutary.
Khalil has added a number of songs to the play giving it a mini-musical flavour that did not do anything for me.
Henry VIII was a monster of a magnitude to rival even 20th century dictators, but Shakespeare was not about to portray him as such out of respect for keeping his head attached to his body. Director Amy Hodge, however, does not hesitate to have Adam Gillen represent him as a ranting, almost unhinged man who is paranoid, egotistical and murderous. He wants a son and Queen Katharine, his wife of 20 years, has given him only a daughter.
As much as Henry wants a son, he wants Anne Boleyn (Janet Etuk) but he can only have her if he marries her. He needs a divorce, and it is hard to come by in the sixteenth century. The Pope is the only one that can grant it.
He leans on Cardinal Wolsey (Jamie Ballard), a trusted advisor and the most powerful man in England. Ballard gives a marvelous performance as the arrogant and corrupt Wolsey who falls from grace when he fails to deliver the much sought-after divorce. We see a graphic illustration of what can happen to a powerful man who displeases the king. A humiliated Wolsey takes off his red robes of office slowly and methodically in front of us. He is left with only his underwear, a man destroyed. A stunning performance by Gillen.
The masque in the original play is turned into an almost bacchanalian orgy. Henry is seen with a large, gold phallus and that is a good illustration of his and that society’s contempt for women.
The most powerful performance is delivered by Bea Segura. As Katharine she stands up to the King and the nobles who try to persuade her to agree to the divorce. In an era when women had almost no rights and were treated as a little more than producers of babies and toys for men, she shines as a powerful person.
In her tinkering with the play, Khalil adds the character of Princess Mary (Natasha Cottriall), the daughter of Queen Katharine and future Bloody Queen Mary. She threatens to get even with everyone. The play does not end with the happy baptism of Elizabeth but with a fulsome speech by Elizabeth I.
I am not sure how that or the other additions result in an exploration of the feminine experience or make the play more relevant to us. Shakespeare, like Aeschylus, Seneca and Chaucer, reflected the views of his era. Some of those views changed very little over the ensuing centuries reaching their apogee, I suppose, in the 1928 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada. It found that a woman is not a person. How does adding a speech by a great Queen make it more relevant to us?
Henry VIII is produced infrequently because it is not a very good play. Tinkering with it even if one cuts and pastes from Shakespeare’s works does not improve the play nor the position of women in Shakespeare’s time. And it does not help us to see the disgusting position of women in a better light.
Henry VIII by William Shakespeare played until October 23, 2022, at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 21 New Globe Walk, London.

November 4, 2022

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