Anne Boleyn’s had a lively time of it since her death. At the time of her execution she was rumoured to be a witch with an extra finger, in 1692 John Banks’ pathos-drenched Anna Bullen, or Vertue Betray’d made her into a tear-jerking heroine, and she recently turned up again in Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl as an unpleasant Machiavel with a violent streak. Howard Brenton’s play takes on these wildly divergent images, as a newly-crowned James I, frolicking in his sudden wealth and power, finds a book and a dress belonging to the dead queen. Initially he’s excited by the idea of her heresy and the “interesting stains” to be sought on her clothes, but he gradually becomes haunted by the idea that her spirit is still around the palace, and could speak to him. Cutting between two crucial points in Renaissance history – the break with Rome and the writing of the King James Bible – Anne Boleyn shows us the “before” and “after” of the Elizabethan period, so often depicted as the defining era of British history.
There’s a lot of terrific historical information in this play, such as the grisly contraceptive options Anne’s fellow courtiers suggest, or the debates James holds between the High Anglican and Puritan wings of the Church of England, in an attempt to settle their differences. It should be perfect material for the Globe, but some of the performances were very broad indeed. Miranda Raison’s opening scene as Anne had to capture the audience’s attention and sympathy, but it came across as mannered and smirking, leaving her a lot of ground to make up. On the other hand, James Garnon as King James was brilliant, his stammers and twitches suggesting a man whose lust for life and paranoia fought for control of him. Despite the subject matter, and the evident success of the play, the particular style of performance the Globe encourages seemed to throw the play off kilter a few times. There was too much “playing at naughtiness”, an easy iconoclasm feeding off the sense that jokes about sex are risky and daring in a play about the Renaissance in Shakespeare’s “own” theatre. I can’t blame Brenton, the cast, or the audience for this feeling, but it kept wrecking the play’s pace. Frustratingly enjoyable.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, August 2011