Victim or sexually voracious vixen? These are the polar opposite pigeonholes Anne Boleyn has found herself cast into by history, and historians, down the centuries.
Here, the Shakespeare Globe and English Touring Theatre’s touring production of Howard Brenton’s drama about Tudor politics, the Reformation, and disputes over the word of God that plagued the English people and monarchy at the time, (and for decades after), attempts to posit a third possibility.
That possibility is that rather than being a doe-eyed dupe, or opportunistic hussy (even witch) who seduced Henry VIII, Anne was in fact a steely, independent, English equivalent of Joan of Arc.
She tried her best to act in good faith as an “instrument of God” in order to persuade Henry to turn his back on the Pope and the Catholic church, in her revolutionary desire that England follow the Protestant faith. it was a desire whose fallout James I would have to contend with in the religious schism that emerged during his reign.
In order to do that of course, she has to contend with the Machiavellian machinations of two of the slipperiest politicos you can imagine - Vatican lapdog Cardinal Wolsey, and that most unprincipled of schemers Oliver Cromwell. But she carries on knowing she may end up losing her head in the process.
Which of course she duly did. Her failure to deliver a male heir to the throne (and, in Brenton’s version of events, her awareness of Cromwell’s financial scams), saw her accused of adultery, incest and treason, locked up in the Tower of London, and eventually executed.
It’s an endgame Jo Herbert’s mesmerising Anne recalls with resigned humour and clarity at the play’s opening, as her ghost, set to haunt James 1, appears carrying a sack with her head in it directly addressing the audience, and setting the tone for the unconventional, bawdy, thought provoking, revisionist horrible history of Tudor England and Anne’s life that is to follow.
There are three things you should never talk about in a bar: politics, sex and religion. Brenton’s drama tackles all three head on with wit and brio, as Anne embraces first the King, and then the “heresy” and inflammatory ideas of banned religious writer William Tyndale.
Directed by John Dove (whom Scottish audiences will know for his fine visiting director productions of American classics at the Edinburgh's Royal Lyceum over recent years), the production played to sell out runs at The Globe in 2010 and 2011. And it’s easy to see why.
Fast paced, brimming with ideas, and performed by a formidable ensemble cast, the show is as rich in humour as it is in revisionist historical supposition, court politicking, and theological debate. If the content sounds like heavy sledding, it’s anything but here.
Herbert lights up the stage with a scintillating performance as Anne, exuding both passion and steely determination as a woman of substance throughout, as she tugs at the audience’s heart strings with all the conviction she did Henry’s. David Sturzacker makes for lithe and lively Henry, while Julius D’Silva is spot on as bully boy Cromwell.
But it’s James Garnon who steals the show here, his James 1 a shrewd, hyperactive, tic-ridden cross between Eddie Izzard and Billy Connolly. Definitely one to file under Must See.
Anne Boleyn, Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Edinburgh until Sat. Tel: 0131 529 6000