REVIEW: Anne Boleyn (Auckland Theatre Company)

Anna and Stephen have a fight about who has the best costume.

The Other Woman [by James Wenley]

Anne Boleyn
Anna Jullienne as Anne Boleyn. Photo: Michael Smith

Boleyn comes encumbered by reputation. She’s called a great deal many things through the course of the play: “the harlot queen”, “intolerable woman”, “witch”, “the whore”. She’s arguably subject to one of history’s great hatchet jobs, the dangerous female who bewitched a King and tore England asunder. For his 2010 drama, Howard Brenton recasts and reclaims Anne as a tragic heroine who seeks to make her own place within the male-dominated factions of Henry VIII’s court, and by winning the King’s love, and the King’s ear, steers world history on a different course.

Brenton’s Anne, by way of Anna Julienne, is driven by a potency of burning ambition, higher ideal, changing-the-world zeal, and, yes, love.

Whereas Anne’s sister Mary succumbed to the King, and subsequently found herself out of favour, Anne knows the value of sex as tool. Anne catches Henry’s attention when she throws an orange at him during a court masque. There is a suggestion that what propels Henry’s interest is Anne’s decided delay in bearing all her fruits; a tortured Henry asks to see “a little further than the knee”. Seven years later, Anne and the King finally consummate their courtship. The King suggests this would be a good time for an interval.

The play is like that – there are serious weighty themes, not least the fierce battle for England’s religious soul, tied up with sexual bawdy and theatrical winks to the crowd. For this, Brenton takes his cue from Shakespeare’s mingling of high and low.

This is no accident. Anne Boleyn premiered at Shakespeare’s Globe where it played in the same season with Henry VIII (aka All is True) where the same actress played the Anne Boleyn character in both. The audience is seated on 3-sides in Q’s Rangitara to make the most out of Brenton’s use of asides and soliloquy’s. Both the mighty and the mice (as one character, in an aside, casts the players of the world) get their moment in the spotlight. Often short and sharp – what would take Iago a whole speech to say is snappily dealt with in a sentence by oily Cromwell: “I’m lying”. At times the expediency of Brenton’s bold observances sacrifices wider depth such as Boleyn’s motivational declaration: “I should be demure”, but, “I want… I want… I want the King in me”. Startling yes, but Shakespeare would have teased more hue.

Brenton’s plot juggles the dual time-frame’s of regime change when James I comes to England, and Boleyn’s romance with Henry, invented meetings with reformist William Tyndale, and rise and fall. When James uncovers a “heretical” book of Tyndale’s belonging to Boleyn, he looks back to her legacy as he ponders the urgent issue of how to “settle” the thorny issue of religion in England.

The production’s first moment sees Anne’s ghost tease us with what might be contained in her gilded handbag. Yes, handbag. The Colin McColl directed production plays with a contemporary spin on the Tudor world. The original Globe production went period dress; the script’s modern relevance speaks for itself (with accessible language to boot). There was even a chilling touchpoint related to the PRISM media storm in spy master Cromwell’s mantra to “make sure we know where everyone is all the time” (the more things change the more they stay the same indeed).

Boldly articulated through a quintessential Elizabeth Whiting Costume design with gorgeous fabrics, vivid flourishes of colour, and a touch of the outrageous, the cast are dressed to evoke a marriage of Tudor and Stuart with more recent fashions. King James is decked in a chic magenta tartan suit jacket and trousers (with stiletto boots!) and is advised by men in grey suits. James’ young plaything George Villiers has first a hipster number, then a bejeweled leather jacket. Cromwell’s two lackeys could pass for the Blues Brothers. The ladies of court in poofy dresses dance to Rock’n’Roll. Julienne’s costume however anchors her in the period, an attention grabbing red dress as if she has just walked out of a Tudor painting.

Rachael Walker’s stage design has concrete on the ground, with rusted industrial beams rising above. Depth is well utilized, the stage converging towards a horizon point upstage where a small tree sits, apparently made of metal coils. A centre platform which angles towards the main seating block allows for level in McColl’s blocking. There is a hint of excavation and foundations laid bare, just as King James (and Brenton) excavates Boleyn’s story. The costuming makes for a pretty aesthetic on top of this space (with Phillip Dexter’s lighting bringing forth the shadows of courtly intrigue), but I wonder if the pendulum has swung too far. In the tradition of recent productions like Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mary Stuart, it is what we have come to expect from ATC and holds little surprise.

One of the talking points of this production is the incredible New Zealand theatre luminaries in the cast, a “21st birthday treat to ourselves” says McColl. And it’s a treat for us too. Paul Minifie and ATC founder Simon Prast return to the stage after lengthy absences. George Henare, Raymond Hawthorne, and Ken Blackburn are also present and accounted for. These names would be more than enough by themselves, but we also get regular ATC faces and reliable players Hera Dunleavy, Peter Daube, Andrew Grainger as Henry VIII and Stephen Lovatt as James I.

The acting then is scene chewing brilliance. Minifie employs scowling facial contortions as Wolsey. Prast plays scheming Cromwell as a wolf on a prowl, the repeated flexing of his hands suggesting the effort to contain himself, and he’s frightening when he finally uncoils. We have to wait longer for Hawthorne in his featured role as Dean Lancelot Andrews, who enjoys a heated back and forth with Minifie playing his religious opponent. Henare is faultless, and Blackburn entertains in his bemused asides.

Anna and Stephen have a fight about who has the best costume.
Anna and Stephen have a fight about who has the best costume.

Lovatt is a prancing riot as James, finding colour in both his outrageous carryon as a get-away-with-anything playboy King (“I put the Scotsman on the throne of England. What have I done?” ponders Henare’s Cecil), but also nicely revealing his pragmatic intelligence. Our other King, Grainger’s Henry, who sums up life as “make war, make love”, is a boisterous mass of contradictions, enjoying the game but also weary of it, powerful but trapped by Anne. His affections start as lust – Grainger’s eyes lingering too long over Julienne’s bosom – but Grainger also shows us the warmth and love he has for his (second) wife.

Amongst the troupe of acting royalty, McColl has also cast Actors Program graduates Mikassa Cornwall and Lauren Gibson (the latter playing third wife-to-be Lady Jane Seymour). Jordan Mooney, who “graduated” from ATC’s three years of the Young&Hungry Festival, impresses with the vastly different dual roles of George Villiers and Simpkins.

Then there is Anna Jullienne’s beguiling Anne Boleyn. She plays her like she knows what she wants from the beginning, giving us flirtation with determined purpose. Exterior grace and charm gives way to bursts of passion, before regaining poise as if nothing has happened. Julienne’s pivotal scene sees her turning the tables on those who would accuse her of heresy, wooing and playing her husband to get her way. Advocating for William Tyndale’s philosophy, she says a King is directly answerable to God, not the Pope. Crucially, it is Henry who suggests that if the Church was to so operate, he wouldn’t need to ask the Pope for a divorce. Clever Anne.

If the play’s foreground is Anne’s personal story, successes and struggles, the background is the catholic/protestant battle for England. For a time, the background overwhelms the foreground in the second half as James I hosts debate amongst the country’s protestant factions. James’s summation of biblical translation issues is a fascinating insight into key doctrinal ideologies (congregation versus church, elder versus priest, love versus charity), and he schemes to divide and conquer before binding Christianity together in his own King James Bible, a translation to end all translations.

Anne reasserts herself as the foreground, but as if to balance the nasty court innuendo, Brenton errs on making Anne too saintly by play’s end. On her way up we only heard from first wife Catherine of Aragon by way of report, our sympathies firmly with other woman Anne. On her way down, Anne, troubled by her inability to produce a male heir, is the deserving wife, Jane Seymour a personality-less puppet.   Cromwell turns against Anne to preempt her from revealing the embezzlement of money intended for her own proto-charity work.  Her fall is precipitated by political machinations moving on without her.

Brenton idolizes Anne, by giving her a vision of the future in her final moments, as a very pivotal figure indeed. Certainly the play makes a tenuous case for inspiring James in his own game changing religious project. But Brenton reaches further still. Boleyn was a mouse who became mighty. An undeservedly maligned figure that radically altered the course of Christianity by design, not accident. For love, for power, and for God.

A mighty ensemble makes a mighty production to befit this version of Queen Anne.

Anne Boleyn is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at Q until 13 July. Details see ATC.

SEE ALSO: review by Kate Ward-Smythe

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