A quick introduction to me, a late exile from the Abbey Theatre in St Albans. My first CoPs review for the Mercury was in 1999, Don't Dress for Dinner, directed by the young Eric Chorley. I have since covered over fifteen company productions, only one of which was truly awful. Eric has now invited me to invade these pages with my views on Andy Lee's production of that playwright-provocateur Howard Brenton's Anne Boleyn which I saw at your theatre on Wednesday 27th November.
Brenton, generally regarded as left-wing, again and again has upended preconceptions with his subject matter - from agitprop to this iconoclastic piece. I note (from the insert for background reading later - helpful, but the programme might have got his name right) he wrote this play 'to celebrate her life and her legacy as a great English woman who helped change the course of history.' So this is his salute to her as both sexually fearless and, he says, 'something like an English Joan of Arc with a mission'.
But to the play as seen and performed. Its setting was right. It was simple and created the greatest amount of space to spread (to cope with one actor to every four audience). No false frills and helped enormously throughout by intelligent lighting - the spot on the blade at the beginning was a splendidly subtle comment on the end. I am told the costumes looked authentic, if here and there a little used. Period yokels always seem to end up Pythonesque, perhaps to be dealt with here as a sort of tight chorus in all-enveloping cloaks?
Shakespeare in his epilogue to King Henry the Eighth wrote: 'Tis ten to one, this play can never please All that are here. Some come to take their ease, and sleep an act or two...' The first statement may be true here but as for the second, no chance of that happening. The play is episodic and the director dealt with it very effectively, controlling its ebb and flow and momentum with seldom a pause for breath, rapidly moving its large cast from the court to the chamber. I only wish he could have found enough physical space at the back of the stage area to allow his actors to make more effective entrances - and ugh! those pedestrian exits with their right angle turns-off. And I did wonder at times if using his sound crew more, by introducing some music or even effects, drum beats etc, would have contributed to the period atmosphere over slightly extended black-outs indicating the major changes of place and time. He did full justice to the theatricality of Brenton's dialogue though, with a minor cavil that there were laugh lines which were occasionally unpointed and so lost.
Before considering the actors, may I now voice a concern I have long held about your company, one that always aims for professional standards? You are really very lucky. Yours is an intimate space to work in that permits voice/sound levels of a subtlety and sensitivity impossible in a larger arena. The actors (and the directors) are thus fortunate, especially in developing dimensions of character. But there are some who leave me with the feeling they are playing to the back benches in the upper gallery at the Globe rather than to an audience a few feet away from them. There were one or two in this production who might look to their decibels. Enough said. End of moan.
One must start with the eponymous cult figure 'Anne Boleyn: Drama Queen'. Emma Muir began as she went on. Her very first entrance: 'ANNE: (aside. Working the audience.)' That's in the script; it's a comedy term, working the audience, going to them, bringing them into the action. Anne came on and remained firmly stage centre, not attempting to bring them into her world, and this was a feeling I had throughout - of a beautifully controlled performance, consistent and somehow oddly pure, to be watched and much admired, but not felt. This may have been the beautiful woman wooed by Henry but not the ambitious woman who helped to bring about the downfall of Wolsey.
Enter King James the First. Jim Markey, limp of wrist James, made it a part to tear a cat in. From his spot-lit entrance on there was no doubt that here was an actor with the touch of Olivier, enjoying every ridiculous moment and every high camp opportunity the script provided. If the audience were puzzled about him at first it was quickly dispelled. He may have been naughty, making ad lib moues at the audience, but they loved it. Poor Robert Cecil had to cope with this outrageous man and Andy Howell did so in quiet asides; but he had his acting chance later in the play as the open and honest west country theologian Tyndale and gently but firmly took it.
I did feel sorry for Paul Morton though; it was the old adage, 'follow that!' Everyone has their own views of Henry from their knowledge of history and probably from Holbein's vast image of him - I did miss his codpiece. Here was a good actor who used his physicality to fine effect but somehow did not create the third dimension of this OTT monarch: maybe it was missing in the writing, I don't know, but there was a workmanlike feel about his performance.