Someone at the Folger Theatre must have a wry sense of humor to stage Henry VIII during election season. The last history play in Shakespeare’s canon has power struggles, Machiavellian antics, and political intrigue to rival anything on the Hill—and even a sex scandal for good measure. Throw in Thomas Cranmer’s declaration that England’s first female leader “shall be loved and feared. Her own shall bless her; her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,” and it’s the 2008 Iowa caucuses all over again, but with fewer pantsuits and more petticoats.
Robert Richmond’s production takes the rarely performed play, cuts it down to a manageable size, adds two new characters, and emerges as a show that deftly explores the human drama behind the Tudors without skimping on the facts. Spotty history suggests that the play celebrated Princess Elizabeth of Bohemia’s marriage, which explains all the shameless praise for the queen of the same name but also requires careful treatment of Elizabeth I’s executed mother, Anne Boleyn. Shakespeare focuses more on the upwardly mobile men at court, including the Duke of Buckingham and Cardinal Wolsey, and less on the international diplomatic crisis sparked by Henry VIII’s marital merry-go-round.
The play opens with Henry VII’s famed court jester Will Sommers (superbly played by Louis Butelli), a new character who acts like a Puck or Ariel figure, manipulating drama and engaging directly with the audience. “I come no more to make you laugh,” he declares grandly, having previously acted out a brief history of Henry’s reign through glove puppets. Butelli also plays a variety of other characters from a Roman cardinal to an old maid. By having the same actor jump between roles while essentially remaining in character as the jester, Richmond communicates the dishonest motives behind many of Henry’s contemporaries. Butelli’s irreverent, skilled transition between accents and mannerisms is enjoyable to watch—you get the sense that he’s keeping the audience in on the joke.
Ian Merrill Peakes, who drew universal acclaim for his portrayal of Macbeth at the Folger in 2008, makes for a dynamic and conflicted Henry. He comes across as ruthless enough to discard his wife of 20 years (Queen Katherine, played powerfully by Naomi Jacobson, is unable to bear him a male heir, a sign to Henry that their marriage is cursed) and order two of his most trusted advisers to the tower. But he’s also human enough to have to bear the weight of those decisions himself.
Jacobson tackles the part of the graceful, unfailingly loyal queen with relish. When she declares “Nothing but death shall ever divorce my dignity,” it’s a noble final stand from a sadly maligned character. The play’s two other female characters, Anne Boleyn (Karen Peakes) and Henry’s only child by Katherine, Mary (Megan Steigerwald), act mostly as window dressing, displaying the full effect of William Ivey Long's superb costumes.
Credit is also due to British actor Anthony Cochrane, who as Cardinal Wolsey delivers one of the most memorable soliloquies of the show: When he learns that his plots against the king have failed, Wolsey laments “I have touched the highest point of all my greatness, and from that full meridian of glory/ I haste now to my setting,” a line that conjures up myriad fallen stars, from Jack Abramoff to Scooter Libby. Power is fleeting, Richmond seems to suggest, and betrayal only too common among the people who pursue it without caution.
At the Folger Theatre through November 28. Tickets ($30 to $60) are available here.