The play opens on the night of Henry VIII’s his wedding to Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, and closes with the execution of his fifth, Katherine Howard, after she is found guilty of adultery.
William Nicholson’s “Katherine Howard” presents the story of a lonely, grumpy, unfulfilled Henry smitten by a feisty, straight-talking Katherine. She has however a prior commitment to Tom Culpeper which ultimately proves her downfall. The relationship between King and courtier develops against the din of gossip and Court politics – Katherine is seen as a pawn in the battle between the Catholic Duke of Norfolk and the Anglican Archbishop Cranmer to undo the Reformation.
Henry, with the Tudor dynasty secured, has reluctantly accepted the marriage to Anne of Cleves, the German Mare. Nicholson starts with this wedding, moves quickly to the divorce and the plotting of Norfolk to insinuate his niece into the King’s bed. We are shown the dominant male culture, the subservience to royal whim and the devious legal posturing to secure the annulment.
While Norfolk at first despairs of getting Kate to entrap the King, her very freshness and openness captivate the old rogue. Marrying out of duty, she comes to love Henry while still carrying a torch for young Culpeper. Though faithful to Henry she unwisely meets her former lover in her bedchamber before he leaves the court. Ultimately, he, she and her Lady-in-waiting pay the price, while Henry ponders the burdens of kingship.
Graham Kilner’s production at CoPs moved briskly and brought out the humorous passages well. The setting was minimal, essential on CoPs small platform but not entirely successful. I shall return to this and the lighting later. Costumes had a period feel with much velvet and fur, although I was not always happy with the colour matches.
The play rests heavily on the performances of Henry (Keith Thompson), Kate (Emma Muir), Norfolk (David Crook) and Cranmer (Keith Morbey). Henry’s gruff manner was well established – at first I thought too gruffly – but the development of the relationship with Kate brought a welcome subtlety to Keith’s performance. Clearly he wasn’t ginger, but you can’t have everything.
Katherine was really a thoroughly modern miss – playing the field before marriage, out-staring the King, plain speaking – and I enjoyed Emma Muir’s portrayal. It is hard to gauge how two such characters would interact in their own time. In this production one saw a growing, yet stilted, affection which given Kate’s repeated affirmation of Henry’s god-like status – is perhaps right. Nicholson provides only a little dialogue to help establish this development.
There were some puzzling points: for my money the dress she was given to wear to dazzle the King seemed duller than the one she started with, and surely she would have tried “twirling” the dress when clothed, to get the feel of its effect. There were other occasions where I felt she would have pressed forward during arguments rather than turning away – weak points of direction perhaps.
Kate’s friendship with Culpeper (Chris Janes) was warmly portrayed. Essential to the plot, Culpeper has a modest part in Nicholson’s drama. Sadly, our potential enjoyment of some of his tender moments with Kate was vitiated by their near invisibility.
David Crook’s Duke of Norfolk was disappointing. I expected more of the cowardly bully in a portrayal of this unpleasant individual (as he fell to his knees before the King crying, “I know nothing!” I immediately thought of Manuel in “Fawlty Towers”). Cranmer (Keith Morbey) was suitably magisterial, lacking a little in light and shade perhaps but remorseless and satisfyingly devious. He too seemed at times to suffer from unfocussed moves.
Ros Saint-Clare’s ambivalent Lady Jane Rochford breezily arranged assignations and spread gossip and also provided a model sex lesson for the naïve Anne of Cleves (Julia Ryan) – something to do with seed drills and how little boys’ tassels could become fierce. Later, in a scene reminiscent of “When Harry Met Sally” Julia, now in the character of the indiscrete and garrulous Mary Hall, convincingly portrayed the sound of adultery heard through a closed door. Andy Kirtley, Rob Newman, Mike Newbold and Shelagh Ryan suitably performed other sword-thrusting, note-taking, cape-bearing and prisoner-handling tasks, together with occasional curtain twitching. Which brings me back to the presentation.
The use of drapes can provide a flexible way of varying the ambience aided by the selective use of directional lighting and colour. At Henry’s court one thinks of stone walls, armour, swords and hard wood, perhaps softened by rich fabrics, but the play could have been given against a neutral or dark curtain backing. The choice of unbleached scrim gave it an unsubstantial feel, not improved by poor lighting. Much of the curtain swishing was unnecessary, forcing the action downstage: this reduced the scope for characters to adopt varying relationships and made for awkward, cramped entrances and exits.
There was a magic moment between Henry and Katherine when, candle-lit, they looked out into the night, but much of the lighting was inexplicable. Levels went up and down for no reason obvious to the onlooker, and important characters were often ill lit. It really doesn’t help the audience’s enjoyment when the actors’ features are less brightly lit than their background.
“Katherine Howard” puts the case for the defence engagingly with some observations on the difficulties of relationships with the powerful. Despite my reservations, I enjoyed CoPs production of this interesting play and I look forward to my next visit.