Originally devised by Foursight Theatre, Six Dead Queens weaves together history and comedy in this tale of three Catherines, two Annes and one Jane – the ill-fated wives of Henry VIII. Betrayed, beheaded, barren, bemused, broken and bored, this royal gaggle is trapped in eternity and forced to share one husband and one bed upon which they sing, dance and fight to assert themselves as the one true queen. The queens shine a comedic light on the dark reign of Henry VIII, forcing the limitations of their historical archetypes to the breaking point. As each accepts the challenge of being her true self, enemies are transformed into comrades, and the women behind the titles band together to raise a raucous royal coup against their fat, flaccid, inflatable spouse.
We Brits seem to be obsessed with Henry VIII. I cannot recall how many television series and films I have seen about him, but I’m sure they are even more numerous than those about Elizabeth I, which is saying a lot. Then there’s the wonderful Wolf Hall, and quite a few films and plays about Anne Boleyn, and several really good novels set in the period.
Last year in Edinburgh I saw Six, best described as a rock musical about his wives, which is now – to my amazement – running in the West End. And I suspect most of us can repeat from memory the sequence “Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived” even if we can’t always be sure of getting their names in the right order.
And now the CoPs audience has confirmed my view, by demanding an additional performance of Foursight Theatre’s theatrical romp, set in whichever of heaven, limbo or hell the six wives ended up in. Given that after 450 years this mixed group of virtuous and not-so-virtuous women are still all together, I can only conclude it must be limbo. So even for an omniscient God, deciding on the ultimate destination of the six is clearly no simple matter. Henry himself was of course a speedier decision maker, though not always right.
Director Darren Barsby has earned my gratitude for the ready-made descriptions in his programme notes, which refer to the piece as “this daft show” and an “absurd and energetic romp”. Precisely so, and he was also bang on the mark when he said “this will not be a cerebrally taxing evening”. But it most certainly was an immensely entertaining evening, and like the rest of the audience I laughed a great deal. I have no doubt at all it was a lot harder work for the cast than it looked, for however relaxed they may have seemed, performing high speed comedy takes steady nerves and fierce concentration.
Whilst laughter was clearly the main purpose of the evening, there were one or two briefly sobering hints of the brutal reality of the Queens’ existence: Catherine of Aragon’s series of miscarriages, for example; the constant pressure on all of them to deliver a male heir; and the physical repulsion of the older Henry. I can’t quite decide whether more moments like this would have improved or spoiled the overall impact of the evening.
This was very much an ensemble performance, so I’m not going to plough through the cast list handing out adjudicator’s marks. They worked together fabulously, and even when one of them had a solo the others never switched off. The character I personally found funniest was Anne of Cleves, Henry’s mail-order wife who turned out on arrival not to match the catalogue description. In this piece she was portrayed as a solemn Rhinelander still outraged at being blamed for Henry’s inability to consummate the marriage. (On reflection, that portrayal of her was probably not far from the truth.) The writers and Jo Manser squeezed every possible ounce of laughter out of the poor lady’s indignation, and the mockery of the others.
Apart from the slickness of the actors’ performances, there was much else to praise in this production. I particularly liked Chris Janes’s simple but striking setting, the vast bed at precisely the right angle and position on stage – and providing a highly practical repository for all sorts of props. Excellent sound and lighting too; and most of all, the impression of a director bringing order to what could have been a chaotic process, whilst at the same clearly inspiring the cast to enjoy every minute of it. As we did too.