Off with her head

By Dionne Christian

Anne Boleyn examines the story of Henry VIII's second wife, through the eyes of various key players in the king's court. Dionne Christian talks to its writer, English dramatist Howard Brenton.

Andrew Grainger, left, Anna Jullienne and Simon Prast are starring in the Auckland Theatre Company production of Anne Boleyn. Photo / Natalie Slade
Andrew Grainger, left, Anna Jullienne and Simon Prast are starring in the Auckland Theatre Company production of Anne Boleyn. Photo / Natalie Slade

Every nation has a founding story, says English playwright and screenwriter Howard Brenton. He believes that for many years Arthurian legends captured English imaginations before stories of Winston Churchill and World War II formed the scaffolding on which to write more contemporary identity myths.

Now he reckons Britons are again looking to the more distant past for clues as to who and why they are and the Tudor period - with its intoxicating mix of power and passion, politics and religion - is under interrogation.

The signs of this renewed interest are apparent in Hilary Mantel's multi award-winning books, Wolf Hall and i, the success of the outrageously frothy TV series The Tudors and, possibly more significantly, a new wave of scholarship which re-casts key players in a new light.

Brenton himself has contributed to the resurgence via his play Anne Boleyn, which comes to Q Theatre this month courtesy of Auckland Theatre Company, and stars Anna Jullienne as the controversial second wife of King Henry VIII (Andrew Grainger).

ATC says the play deals in mortal dangers and shifting allegiances to expose the life and legacy of the woman dubbed "the whore who changed Britain". It gets off to a rollicking start with Anne talking bluntly about her beheading, a monstrous act which ensured even those with scant interest in history would remember who she was.

But rather than portraying Anne as she is so frequently depicted - a wicked woman who schemed and manipulated her way into the King's bed - Brenton is more benevolent to the much-maligned and ultimately tragic queen. He suggests she was an intelligent, thoughtful and devout woman, albeit foul-mouthed at times, motivated by her Protestant faith and desire for religious reform.

Working closely with Henry's chief minister Thomas Cromwell (played by Simon Prast), himself a closet Protestant, the duo subtly persuaded the King to break with the Catholic Church, dissolve the monasteries and transfer their power and money to the royal court, thus setting in motion the move to a secular and more centralised parliamentary system.

Talking from his home in England, Brenton says Anne should be viewed as a great reform leader. He believes the vile things said about her at the time were part of a propaganda campaign designed not so much to stop Henry from divorcing Catherine of Aragon, but to limit Anne's influence at court.

"That she kept herself intact is a miracle to me but I think it was because of her faith and this is an aspect of her personality which has, until recently, not had the attention it deserves."

Brenton has long been intrigued by Tudor history, partly the result of a religious upbringing (his father was a Methodist minister) but also because of the conflicts in the nature of Tudor society itself - and conflict makes for good drama.

"The royal court was such a dangerous and perilous place to be and yet at the same time it's difficult for us to get our heads around the fact that they were so religious. It imbued every aspect of their world and worldview."

However, good drama is something Brenton cheerfully admits took him a while to find when Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, commissioned him to write a play about the development of the King James Bible. It was to be performed alongside performances of Shakespeare's history plays, but Brenton was perplexed.

"I thought it would be too dry and to find the drama in the translation of the Bible - and to be able to bring that to the stage - would be extremely difficult so I thought about what James I was up to when he decided to have an English translation of the Bible for the Church of England.

"Then I remembered I had read somewhere that Anne Boleyn had a copy of [religious reformer] William Tyndale's translation of the New Testament and a copy of his The Obedience of a Christian Man. These were extremely controversial books; the type of literature which could, at the time, send you to the Tower because it attacked the Catholic Church and argued that God speaks to us through scripture, not through the church or the pope."

The story goes that Anne gave a copy of the books to a lady-in-waiting who, by accident or design, had them confiscated by Cardinal Wolsey, Henry's leading church officer. Anne protested to Henry who, in thrall to her, forced Wolsey to return the books but, curious about their content, questioned Anne further about them and agreed to read sections she chose specifically for him.

This discovery meant Brenton had found the way to write a humorous and spirited piece. In Anne Boleyn, after the queen teases the audience about seeing her severed head, the action flits forward to James I (Stephen Lovatt) arriving in London and having a merry old time going through an old trunk he discovers packed with Anne's possessions, including her Bible.

The play travels back and forth in time, with historical figures, including Wolsey (Paul Minifie, making a long-awaited return to the stage), each telling the story as they saw it. There are moments of pure invention on Brenton's part. In the play, Anne conspires with exiled heretic William Tyndale (Peter Daube) to make England Protestant when, in reality, the two never met.

Brenton is entirely comfortable with that artistic licence, citing what playwrights call the "schiller manoeuvre" to imagine what might have happened if events had gone another way: "I think you can take certain liberties because, after all, theatre is the art of telling lies to get at a truth."

Anne Boleyn also features Claire Dougan, Jordan Mooney, Mikassa Cornwall, Lauren Gibson, George Henare, Raymond Hawthorne, Ken Blackburn and Hera Dunleavy.



Performance

What: Anne Boleyn

Where & when: Q Theatre, June 13-July 7

- NZ Herald

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