Howard Brenton’s play imagines a supernatural meeting of minds between Anne Boleyn and James VI of Scotland (James I of England). Finding a copy of William Tyndale’s banned Bible in Boleyn’s post-decapitation belongings, James interviews her ghost to find out more about the role she earmarked for Protestantism in Britain.
Perhaps getting more than it bargained for, the audience ends up with a detailed picture of the beginning of the Reformation and the commissioning of the King James Bible, as well the major players of the period.
Historical though it may be, this show is not dry. For example, a transvestite James VI indulges in some saucy dancing and shares a gay kiss with George Villiers at the beginning of the second act. The humour in the script comes from combining formal language with a modern, and rather irreverent, twist. Perhaps Shakespeare’s Globe has taken a leaf from the Horrible Histories books?
A lot of the energetic atmosphere comes from the top-quality cast. Colin Hurely as pompous Cardinal Wolsey and James Garnon as James VI both give superbly funny performances.
Jo Herbert’s smokey Anne Boleyn captures both the tragic and the titillating sides of her character. There is little chance an audience wouldn’t be on her side as she closes in on Henry VIII and is eventually defeated by the plots of Oliver Cromwell.
The fresh and fun music led by Job Banks is another hit. Bells, harpsichord, violin and a bass viol join the cast in modern reworkings of Tudor songs, including a particularly jazzy Pastime With Good Company.
The show makes clear how vital religion was in Tudor times – the stage crew even paint Matthew 28:20 “I am with you always, even unto the end” on the set. There’s a clear interpretation of each historical character. It’s even clear which sub-group of the church thought what about altar rails. The result, though, is a drama which doesn’t beg many questions.
This is a very entertaining history lesson, despite losing laughs during the second act, but it’s little more than that.