Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII - or - All Is True

The Famous History of Life of King Henry VIII (also referred to in contemporary accounts by the title All Is True) was probably written in part by William Shakespeare, later heavily revised by his successor as playwright to the King's Men, Mr. John Fletcher.

For a play with a long and ostentatious title, Henry VIII lacks many of the flourishes modern audiences come to expect from Shakespeare. There are no fights, no ghosts nor witches. No speeches nor turns of phrase created for the work will strike any modern ear as familiar. It is not performed very much. Never has been, and probably never will.

The most remarkable thing about the play is that when it first debuted in 1613, it brought the house down. Literally. A stage cannon lit the thatched (straw) roof on fire, and the original Globe Theatre burned to the ground. Reportedly, no one was hurt nor killed in the conflagration.

When one thinks of the Henry VIII, the man -- and they aren't distracted by that horrid song -- they think of the big fat guy with the hat, and the fact that he had six wives, several of which he either divorced or had killed. Or you think of that drama on Showtime with all the naked asses.

If you attend a production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII and expect to see either beheadings or naked asses, you will be sorely disappointed, because it don't go there.

Last June Tyson Rand, artistic director the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival contacted me, asking if I wouldn't direct something for the 2012 season.  Someday I will chronicle my unhappy experience with the CSF way back in 2000 (it was unhappy for everyone, not just me) but at this time all I could say was I hadn't directed a Shakespeare since 2006, I really do not have time for directing, and anyway, what would interest me? If he'd said Romeo and Juliet or Macbeth, I would have said no, I had nothing new to offer any well-worked scripts as those.

He said Henry VIII. wtf? I said ... well, all right.

The play is one of court intrigue, trodding ground Shakespeare's audience would have known well, having lived through its immediate aftermath. Henry, seeking a male heir, splits with the Catholic Church so as to legally procure a divorce from his wife, the Queen Katharine of Aragon. The Anglican Church is born (and lots of people are going to die -- but not in this story.)

The historical Catherine of Aragon was a formidable woman. She was ambassador to Spain -- the first female ambassador in Europe in recorded history. When Henry was abroad she ran the country, legally, as regent. She was a strong, capable, intelligent, worldly woman. They were married for almost a quarter century. But, her fecund years coming to an end, and Harry desperate for a male heir, he risked damnation to obtain a proper divorce, and to marry the young Anne Boleyn.

The play, to me, is one great sausage fest. Sure, some are raised up, and some are brought low. But it's all about powerful men playing the game of being powerful men. There are three female characters, Katharine, Anne (here "Bullen") and an "Old Lady". Each are disenfranchised in their way.

The production I am currently in the process of directing will be modern dress, but it won't be modern America. I read The Handmaid's Tale to give me insight into someone else's idea of a patriarchal theocracy. I decided early on that I simply could not justify making certain lords into ladies, or to have women play men's parts. I have done that, prefer to actually. But for this story, gender is such an issue, all guys have to be guys.

The primary image I gave to my people is actually that of The West Wing. There will be walking and talking. A lot of talking in this script. And a lot of walking. That doesn't not mean there will not be surprises.

I will strive to record more about this process as it develops. I know I have not blogged for some time, but I have been legitimately busy in a manner which has kept me from this pursuit at all. I am training for the marathon. Last month I wrote an entire, new script -- which I am happy to say had a lovely rehearsal reading this morning, and I look forward to sharing with the Unit on Tuesday night. And there is much to do at work. But I am really having a great time with the company of Henry VIII, which opens June 15th, and I'll try to keep you posted.

The Cleveland Shakespeare Festival production of The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII opens June 15th at Notre Dame College.

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