Monday, August 2, 2010

Brenton's Boleyn - Or how I met St Anne the Martryr

Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare's Globe (photo by Manuel Harlan)
Last Monday, Sid &I finally made it to Shakespeare’s Globe – a theatre built in the original Elizabethan style and dedicated to Shakespeare’s works. Unfortunately, it wasn’t staging any of the works by the bard himself, but a modern play by Howard Brenton called Anne Boleyn. Anne Boleyn-Henry-Elizabeth-Tudors -Shakespeare: get the connection?

I must say I was also curious to see Brenton's take on Anne, especially to contrast it against Hillary Mantel’s monstrous version, about which I had blogged before.

Now, I was expecting a reasonably sympathetic portrayal of the mistress-in-question. After all, you seldom write and name a play around the villain of the show. But what I was not expecting was to be confronted with St Anne the Martyr.

Brenton's Anne is pious with just that dash of sassy impishness to make her sexy and modern to the audience. Whoever comes in touch with her – her ladies-in-waiting, the courtiers, and above all, Henry himself – simply falls in love with her. Her decision to not have sex with Henry, whilst he was still married to Catherine of Aragon, is really borne out of piousness and honesty rather than cold calculation. And most importantly, she is driven equally by her evangelical zeal to save her soon-to-be English subjects (if only bloody blockheads would agree) from the Roman Catholic Church as she is by her great love for Henry.

But what really took my breath away, was Brenton's suggestion that it was Anne’s intention to expose Cromwell’s siphoning-off for public funds – “funds meant for schools and universities” – that got her so cruelly marked and crucified. What a charming touch – and so resonant with an audience just coming out of a horrendous expenses scandal in the British parliament.

But Brenton's portrayal was essentially a dishonest one because he refused to deal with what Anne’s actions meant to another older woman and her child. Catherine of Aragon and her daughter Mary suffered – and suffered grievously and publicly – because of Anne’s determination to have Henry and the crown. Even if her actions were all borne out her desire to serve the English people, surely, these darker consequences ought to have been addressed by any play seriously asking us to change our perception of England’s most famous mistress. But Brenton coloured Anne hatred of Catherine which just that touch of childishness – she churishly keeps calling Catherine a cow – to the audience  laugh affectionately with exasperation rather than seriously question her actions.

Now Shakespeare would have dealt with Anne’s character in all its darkness and still would have us still somehow see the humanity in her. Brenton in his place airbrushes the darkness away.

Brenton’s play might be staged at Shakespeare’s Globe -- unfortunately, Shakespeare he is not.

- For more on the play and how to see it.It is on till August 21.

- For top ten Tudor sights in London

- I may not be pleased with this version of Tudor history, but apparently Hitler wasn't too pleased with Michael Hirst's pop television version, The Tudors, either. Enjoy!

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