Henry VIII is one of Shakespeare’s less performed plays, but should be of great interest for the History students among you. The play focuses on the early years of Henry VIII’s reign, primarily his dealings with Wolsey, Katherine and Anne Boleyn. It shows the rise and fall of great men and women as turning on a ‘wheel of fortune’, a common conceptual, literary tool in the early modern period. This production centres on the character of Queen Katherine, played exceptionally well by Hillary Stevens whose magnetic presence seems to be the driving force for the whole show.
The play is certainly an interesting piece to see, partly because it is so under performed and partly due to the aesthetics of this production. The performance space, Worcester College’s Victorian chapel, provides an excellent platform for displaying the magnificence of the Tudor court. All the costumes are as accurate as possible, adding to this decadent atmosphere. Although the play is visually pleasing, the main focus is on the actors, a tactic which has gone slightly amiss. Jonny Sims’ lazy performance as Henry VIII surprisingly falls flat, due to his inability to muster the power and arrogance of Henry VIII in his prime. This is a great shame, as the play relies on intense dialogue between the triumvirate of power: Wolsey, Katherine and Henry. This intensity is only really achieved by Hillary Stevens, whose wide eyed pleadings and powerful portrayal of a proud and humbled woman are fantastic to watch. Edmund Stewart as Cardinal Wolsey is very slick and the audience does get a sense of the cunning premeditation behind every move, but his interplay with Henry VIII is lacking in every sense.
Henry VIII in Worcester Chapel will surely be an enjoyable experience, the rarity of the play and the beautiful setting are enough for this. It is a shame therefore, that some of the more complex relationships and characters of the play are not acted according to the high standards set by the rest of the production.
Verdict: The axe misses the mark in this Shakespearean drama.