Film review: Shakespeare’s Henry VIII (BBC production)

Preliminary thoughts:

We’ve just watched the first Act of the BBC Henry VIII. This is a play to which I come with no preconceptions, as it is I think the only play that I have never read or seen and that I have not even encountered as Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.

Of course, one can never be entirely without preconceptions in a history play – I’ve successfully picked a number of characters so far based on a combination of lines and costume, though Henry’s reign is one I know relatively little about (aside from the obvious). In fact, they have dressed everyone to resemble their Holbein portraits as far as possible, at least for their first scenes. This amuses me, because the romance novel I read yesterday featured a troupe of players, and one of them commented that it was easy to pick out Henry VIII’s costume from a wardrobe, as ‘they always make him look like the Holbein portrait’.

Naturally they do – that’s what Henry looks like to everyone from the 17th century onward, I’m sure, and it’s easy to forget that in his youth he was supposedly the handsomest man in Europe (though I imagine the bar is set a little lower for kings).

But I digress. It’s an interesting production so far, but I’m finding the play itself even more interesting. Given that this play was written not too long after the death of Anne Boleyn’s slightly famous daughter, I was surprised at just how intelligent and good his Katherine of Aragon is. She obviously has her finger on the pulse of the realm (I found myself wondering if she had a fleet of spies, because really, she is *remarkably* well-informed, especially compared to Henry), and is equally obviously the brains of the royal outfit – or would be, if Henry would just listen to her. Henry is clearly quite young, far too trusting of Evil!Wolsey, easily led by his emotions, and really not all that bright when these issues are in play. I’m not sure Shakespeare is being entirely fair on him in this respect, but in any case, it seems as though he is being set up to be one of the villains of the piece. Anne is currently looking rather like a pawn.

Also, the level of sleaziness being demonstrated by certain characters in this play is remarkable. And I’m not too thrilled with some of the attitudes being displayed towards women, either (even though the women seem to be the sensible ones in this story).

I’ll be interested to see how it all develops. And I was amused to see Henry’s penchant for masquerades and being ‘incognito’ represented here – with about the amount of success I recall it getting in reality.We finished watching the BBC production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII tonight.

Final review:

It’s a strange, episodic little play. Also, it’s a bit hard to imagine how Henry went through six wives in such a ruthless fashion, when it’s pretty clear that in this particular portrayal, anyone can talk him into anything, and he’ll do whatever the last person told him to. He is, however, excellent at standing around looking like his portrait, which is a good thing, because he gets to do that a lot.

Catherine of Aragon is probably the great heroine of the play, which surprised me a little, given that every other Catholic in this play is Evil and Scheming (even St. Thomas More *). She is also obviously the brains of the family, which is rather a pity. Cardinal Wolsey was rather wonderful – if Catherine is the heroine, he must be the villain of the piece, but Timothy West played the role as though the whole play was The Tragedy of Cardinal Wolsey, which was rather wonderful. Anne Boleyn is sweet and good and innocent, and even the Catholics can’t *really* bring themselves to hate her (also, Catherine of Aragon’s death occurs before Elizabeth’s birth, which, while not rendering Elizabeth precisely legitimate, does remove a source of ambiguity).

I think my favourite character was Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (one of the founders of the Anglican Church, and a martyr under Queen Mary, thus very definitely a saintly and sincere being). Cranmer was played by Ronald Pickup, who has a very pleasant, kindly sort of face, and a nice, understated way with his lines. He also clearly really likes babies, and was going adorably ga-ga over little Elizabeth. I’ve never seen Shakespearean iambic pentameter performed by an actor who is simultaneously making woodgie-coo faces at a baby. He also had a tendency to speak the lines of his speech directly to the baby, which caused him to start using the sort of voice people tend to use when talking to babies. He managed to speak the line “Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn / And hang their heads with sorrow” without adding “Oh yes they do, don’t they? Yes indeed they do!”, but it was a close call.

I was amused at the diplomatic ending to the play – at the christening of baby Elizabeth, with the aforementioned prophecies of greatness and woodgie-cooing by Cranmer. Shakespeare pretty much had to end it there. Elizabeth’s birth is more or less the justification for Catherine’s divorce, so any earlier would be no good – and after Elizabeth’s birth it all goes downhill in ways that are likely to be unflattering to any of Henry’s relatives.

It would be interesting to know, though, what Shakespeare was trying to do in writing this play. His other history plays tend to explore kingship (mostly its failure modes, but not always) and what it means. This was less evident here, perhaps because making such a recent monarch into an object lesson would not be politic – though it occurs to me that about the only time we see Henry acting in a remotely good and kingly fashion is when he is defending Cranmer. But again, I can’t see this play as being about the English Reformation, exactly. It just isn’t sufficiently center-stage for that. There is a lot of pageantry, but in between there is politicking and back-stabbing, and of course the Divorce, so it isn’t just a pageant. And the cast changes almost every Act, because Henry really does seem to go through chancellors and councillors and even clergy in a big way. Actually, looked at like that, the six wives thing almost makes sense. Clearly, nobody, male or female, stayed in favour or was trusted for long.

So I don’t know what to make of this one. It was well-acted, definitely, and did manage to escape being dull, but I’m still not entirely sure what it was about.

And I still feel sad for Catherine of Aragon.

ETA: Apparently that wasn’t More after all, it was Gardiner (also Catholic and definitely evil) – More’s chancellorship got skipped entirely, and I imagine that More would be quite relieved to hear it, under the circumstances.

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