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‘Henry VIII’ at Chicago Shakespeare: Depicting the king in kindly tint, as Elizabeth’s forebear

Submitted by on May 22, 2013 – 3:08 pm

Review: “Henry VIII” by William Shakespeare, directed by Barbara Gaines, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through June 16. ★★★★

By Nancy Malitz

Mention Shakespeare’s “Henry VIII” and you get that quizzical look. The play’s rarely done today. The assumption is it’s lesser stuff. Its authorship is ascribed only partly to Shakespeare, along with John Fletcher, who took over as playwright for the King’s Men when the older bard retired.

“Henry VIII,” as it is now being done at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, with some roles combined and compressed, makes a good case not only for the play, but also for substantial Shakespearean authorship. Henry’s a fast learner; Katherine’s splendidly regal; Wolsey’s an outrageous villain and Shakespeare’s poetry is amazing no matter which character he serves.

Chicago Shakes regulars will find bits of Juliet’s nurse, Coriolanus, Prince Hal, Falstaff, Polonius, Iago and certainly Henry V in this current cast of characters. Not to mention those petty valiants who entertain us so, with their gossip and eavesdropping, and their bravado that turns cowardly on a dime — what would we do without them?

It doesn’t help to think of “Henry VIII” as a play about Henry VIII, though. For one thing, it is so grandly musical in its sadness that it feels like Shakespeare’s own farewell to theater. For another, it ends too early in Henry’s reign to be about him in the full.

Its focus is on Henry as father of the beloved Queen Elizabeth I, performed as it was 10 years after her death — with commemorative pageantry — by the King’s Men, who played frequently at the court of Elizabeth’s successor, James I. Consider the players’ position in this: Who would in that day portray Henry otherwise?

Early histories refer to the title of this play as “All Is True,” which may seem cynical, given that Henry’s bed-and-behead marital history is unexplored, much less the decades of political and religious upheaval he caused.  “Henry VIII” ends with the birth of Elizabeth, a time when both her mother, Anne Boleyn, and Henry’s first wife and former queen, Katherine, were still alive. Director Barbara Gaines slyly acknowledges Anne’s successor, Jane Seymour, as part of the highly attractive palace furniture. But Gaines can do that, convenienced by these 400 years.

This Shakespeare & Fletcher portrait puts Henry in the sympathetic light of a smart, if randy, young king who is innocent of the extent to which he is being played by his own false councilor, Cardinal Wolsey. Henry is also love-struck by Blind Cupid’s dart, yet respectful of his mature queen, the fire having left their marriage long ago.

Gaines supports this line when it comes to the ages and tendencies of the main characters, giving us a king who’s helplessly aflame, a Katherine worthy of his friendship, and a hideously false cardinal so excessive in every way that we love to hate him. But Gaines also finds plenty of room in the seams between the scenes, and in breakaway pantomimes, to satisfy our contemporary awareness of how this story really goes.

The opening scene is silent spectacle, serving the same purpose as lengthy preliminary chatter among minor characters, wisely trimmed: to show us Wolsey, the evil puppeteer in cardinal’s robes, in a typically shameless act. To majestic music of Lindsay Jones, and with the name of Henry VIII emblazoned above the stage, the red-silked priest enters, regally parading an enormous gilded train which, in a ritualistic show of his own greatness, is detached and raised as a banner at his command, rising in front of, and eclipsing, Henry’s very name.

Wolsey’s a bad one, even though as a nemesis he is neither quite as interesting as Shakespeare’s Iago, nor as brutally complete as Richard III. Scott Jaeck plays this honey-tongued holy fox exceeding well, up to and including the scene in which Wolsey reads his own traitorous letters, intercepted by Henry, that show the cardinal to be trading a king for a pope’s favors. At that moment of recognition that he has been found out, Wolsey exclaims true to character, “O negligence! Fit for a fool to fall by.”

What comes next in the play is a nigh impossible task for any Wolsey — a greatly moving speech that sounds more like Shakespeare’s righteous howling at his own betraying hounds than like a tripped-up cardinal wholly unworthy of such exalted sentiment. We cannot buy it. Nor can we believe Wolsey means it when he advises his aide to “fling away ambition” and “love thyself last.” Really? Wolsey is at his truest, and best remembered, when he admits he did not serve his God with half the zeal he served his king; now there’s a gambler who regrets how he apportioned his bets.

As Katherine, Ora Jones is the embodiment of a righteous queen, worthy of worship in her realm, long familial with her king, more experienced than he at ferreting out the true ambitions of those at court. As such, she is Wolsey’s natural enemy, and it’s no surprise that the cardinal is inclined to help the king find that “scruple” that will allow their marriage to be annulled.

The battle between these two is mighty, and Jones’s Katherine is fully up to it. Shakespeare’s words come alive in her delivery, laden with the sharp cynicism of second meaning, unspoken accusation and unwavering intent as she spits out her insistence that “thinking that we are a queen, or so long have dream’d so, certain the daughter of a king, my drops of tears I’ll turn to sparks of fire.”

As her careful divorcer, the lithe and intelligent Gregory Wooddell makes an ideal Henry, one determined to have his way without alienating the people of his kingdom if he can help it.

This is a Henry who has enjoyed the Falstaffian indulgence of Wolsey, whose parties have let him have his private escapes from decorum. But Henry is now a king in a hurry to get his marriage behind him, so that he can pursue Anne, and he comes up to speed with lightning quickness once he realizes that Wolsey is no friend in this.

Director Gaines also gives Wooddell an ample silent scene in which we see Henry caught up in the allure of Anne, and the chemistry between Wooddell’s king and Christine Pumariega’s Anne is most stirring. But Wooddell’s greatest moment is the one in which his Henry gives Wolsey come-uppance. Wooddell’s Henry is clearly ravenous for blood from the first punning pricks at his unsuspecting foe, and the young king is always one step ahead in the verbal battle that builds to a peak of shaking fury, leaving the schemer undone. No wonder the deposed Katherine, in a rare un-regal moment, takes secret comfort in the hearing of it.

Simple as the plot is at its core, there is much amplitude in the unfolding, and in this Chicago’s talent-rich pool of Shakespeareans serve the smartly trimmed script well. Pumariega’s Anne is buttressed by a plain-spoken attendant (Kate Buddeke) who knows how to respond when her charge says, “By my troth and maidenhood I would not be a queen.”

Mike Nussbaum, as Suffolk, and David Lively, as Norfolk, are endearing eavesdroppers and eyewitnesses, our men on the scene, and they thread together what narrative was made necessary by other cuts. Lance Baker as Gardiner, Adam Brown as Lord Sandys, William Dick as Lovell and Nathan M. Hosner as Lord Chamberlain create colorfully individuated men at court. Samuel Taylor plays Wolsey’s admiring secretary Cromwell.

Kevin Gudahl has a nice hat trick playing Buckingham’s lying surveyor, Katherine’s gentle attendant and the righteous Sir Thomas More. David Darlow, last seen at the theater as Julius Caesar, comes back as Wolsey’s Roman ally Campeius; in Gaines’ view, his talent for arm-twisting is no metaphor.

Making his CST debut is Andrew Long as Buckingham, wonderfully beside himself in anger, an early victim of Wolsey, who cannot contain his vein-popping rage at the cardinal’s corruption and ignores the advice of his friends to keep quiet about it. Buckingham may be a minor character in the plot, but he has one of the great farewells of Shakespeare’s time, and to Long’s credit it’s an early peak moment.

Unfortunately for Buckingham and other doomed characters, their exit lines are better than the exit method. This production calls for each end-of-life figure to walk into an enormous incinerator resembling a modern trash bin, which rolls forward into view and opens its mouth like a monster from “Little Shop of Horrors” pleading, “Feed me.” Otherwise a model of pristine minimalism and elegance — with set design by James Noone, costumes of Mariann S. Verheyen, lighting of Anne Militello and Jones’s aforementioned music — the show’s singular death concept mars the script’s finest moments.

Speaking of all that’s true …

How greatly time, and the stage, alter perception of historic events. Most of us think of King Henry VIII as contemptuous of his far older first wife, Katherine, and soon distracted. So here are some facts worth pondering:

  • Their age difference was just five and a half years. Henry was almost 18 when he married Katherine in 1509; she was 23.
  • They worked very hard to produce a male heir. Katherine became pregnant six times with Henry over the course of nine years.
  • The second pregnancy produced a son, Henry, who lived 52 days in 1511. The fourth pregnancy, another Henry, who lived a few hours in 1514. The fifth produced Mary, a future Queen of England, in 1516; at that point Katherine was 30; Henry 24.
  • Katherine’s sixth and last pregnancy, in 1518, produced a daughter who lived six days only. Katherine was by then nearly 33.
  • The next year, 1519, Henry fathered a bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, by a teenager named Elizabeth Blount, who served in Katherine’s retinue. Henry adored Fitzroy, who died while still a teen even as Henry was considering a way to clear him a path to the throne.
  • It wasn’t until 1525 that Henry fell in love with Anne Boleyn, seven years after Katherine’s last pregnancy. At that point Henry was 35, Katherine 39.
  • The lengthy courtship of Anne remained unconsummated, most historians believe, until their secret marriage eight years later in January 1533, a few months before Henry finally succeeded in his annulment to Katherine. Anne was crowned queen in June 1533, and gave birth to Elizabeth, the future queen, in September. Katherine was nearly 48.

Glorious as Elizabeth’s birth year, 1533, was for England, it was the beginning of a bad patch for Henry, ending in what must have been his annus horribilis, 1536. After Elizabeth, Anne had two or three unsuccessful pregnancies, including a stillborn boy on the very day in January 1536 that Katherine was interred.

Whether Henry interpreted the stillborn as divine retribution or as Anne’s evil spell, his actions were then swift. By March, he had moved Jane Seymour into his royal quarters. By April, he was divorced from Anne. In May, she was found guilty of high treason and beheaded.

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Captions and credits: Home page and top: Cardinal Wolsey (Scott Jaeck) and Cardinal Campeius (David Darlow) look on as Queen Katherine (Ora Jones) pleads her case to King Henry VIII (Gregory Wooddell). Descending: Gregory Wooddell is Henry VIII. Anne Boleyn (Christina Pumariega) catches the eye of Henry (Gregory Wooddell). Scott Jaeck is Wolsey. Ora Jones is Queen Katherine. Henry (Gregory Wooddell) finds an outlet for carousing in the home of Wolsey, as Anne Boleyn (Christina Pumariega, at right) looks on. David Darlow is Cardinal Campeius. A stained-glass portrait of Catherine at Chapel at The Vyne, on the estate of the 16th-century country house owned by Lord Sandys, King Henry VIII’s Lord Chamberlain. (Production photos by Liz Lauren)

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