The winds of fall were starting to cool, the leaves were in their final stages of clinging to the branches in Madison, New Jersey, and at long last, after years apart, the souls of Bard Brawl and Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey met. Finally.
After a failed attempt to catch Pericles, Prince of Tyre last season thanks to a “snow storm” (come on New Jersey) we traveled to the quaint town of Madison and took in Henry VIII.
Let’s first give a big fits pump and major props to @ShakespeareNJ for putting on a play so rarely produced. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Henry VIII on a playbill anywhere.
Alas, for those of you who didn’t catch it, we are sorry that you are too late. It was worth the fare.
As discussed often at the Bard Brawl (both podcast and blog), the play suffers from two facts that keep theatre companies from putting histories like Henry VIII on. (1) History plays are very complicated to those who aren’t familiar with the epoch and (2) the late plays where authorship may be questioned are sometimes avoided. It is what it is.
Fortunately for me, I went through a bit of a Henry VIII kick a while ago and have seen A Man For All Seasons, the incredibly addicting Tudors series, the unwatchable Other Boleyn Girl and David Starkey‘s two documentary series on the subject. I get obsessed sometimes.
To say familiarity with the characters helped in engaging Paul Mullins‘ production of Henry VIII would be an understatement, but that’s not a criticism of the play. Mullins’ direction is tight and on point and the story is followable if confusing. The confusion has nothing to do with the production. Shakespeare’s audience would have known the story well and would not have needed explanation on who was who and why that lord was important or not.
A friend that went with me admitted that she (a) understood nothing of what anyone was saying, but (b) really enjoyed the performance.
How did the paradox come to pass?
The characters’ words are hard to filter through at times and there is a lot of dialogue. The actors, however, emote and bounce off each other well and the audience can follow who is aligned with who, who is jealous, who is torn, who is tragic and so on.
Cardinal Wolsey (Philip Goodwin), and the Duke of Buckingham (Thomas Michael Hammond) stand out in their respective roles, and leave memorable imprints. Both have great arcs that go from powerful and pompous to tragic and torn.
Two roles that really need to be amped up with intensity in the production were Anne Bullen (Katie Wieland) and Henry himself (David Foubert). Both actors are very good, but sometimes are overshadowed by those they share the stage with. The story and importance of these two requires that they be comets among asteroids. Something about Bullen (sometimes Boleyn) makes the king change everything. This is a big ask, but one that needs to be answered.
Queen Katherine (Jessica Wortham) is another that chews up the stage even if something in me wishes she played the part more Spanish. (Katherine is of Aragon after all).
At this point I’m nitpicking. The criticisms do not in any way take away from the joy in watching the performances.
Mullins is apt and on point with bringing characters in and out of the story, filling the stage with tension and drama and leaving theatregoers satisfied in the end. Particular points gained for keeping the set simple, costumes on point and not adding too much that shifts attention from the characters.
Having only caught the show in its last week, I feel it my duty to put a huge plug in for the upcoming Much Ado About Nothing that hits the stage December 3. Let’s just hope there are no “snow storms.”