Reviews West End & Central Published 18 July 2011

Anne Boleyn

Globe Theatre ⋄ July 8th – August 21st 2011

Howard Brenton’s salty and irreverent historical play.

Julia Rank

Anne of the thousand days. Photo: Manual Harlan

Howard Brenton’s salty, irreverent and post-modern take on the life and influence of Henry VIII’s second wife (returning for a second run after garnering great acclaim last season) very much belongs to the Globe. The sociable, inclusive atmosphere where characters take the audience into their confidence and the certain excesses in performances and direction wouldn’t be the same in any other venue.

In linking Anne Boleyn’s story with that of her daughter Elizabeth’s successor, James I of England/VI of Scotland, it’s the ghost of the ‘Boleyn whore,’ an advocate of the ‘heretic’ William Tyndale, whose 1520s translation of the Bible would lay the foundation for James’s own project, the King James Bible, several years later.

The newly crowned James I (James Garnon) is ill at ease in England and full of (rather overstated) nervous tics and twitches. This is an eccentric figure with ideas about extending tolerance to Catholics and who dons Anne’s coronation gown to perform a dance full of ambitious lifts with his handsome favourite George Villiers (Ben Deery), an outsider who probably would have been more comfortable as a scholar than a king. Anne, however, has been dead long enough to relish her notoriety, and walks on stage clad in a white nightgown and carrying a blood- stained bag. She teases the audience about its contents before proudly displaying her severed head. Miranda Raison makes a radiant and delightfully mischievous and personable Anne, who can wrap her spectators around her little finger. After a harrowing recollection of her execution, she proclaims, “And now I’m with Jesus!” with childlike glee.

As with most historical fiction, Brenton takes certain liberties with the facts – there’s no historical evidence that Anne Boleyn and William Tyndale (a charismatically rustic Peter Hamilton Dyer, living a furtive existence with his band of outcasts in the forest) ever met. Rather than being a victim of an aspirational family (who are absent from the play, as is Catherine of Aragon) or a heartless schemer, Brenton presents Anne as a deeply religious figure being motivated by the idea of becoming the first Protestant queen and introducing religious reform to England than by self interest (though a cynic could argue that both are interlinked).

Contrary to the popular image of an obese monster, Anthony Howell portrays a slim, refined and loving Henry (Anne maintains that he was “a good husband” – apparentlyit’s different amongst royals). He and Raison evoke a palpable sense of a man and a woman passionately in love. The idea that a king, used to having his way in all matters, would sustain a five-year chaste relationship, as forcing himself upon his beloved would lead to his own emasculation, is the stuff of courtly romances. The audience is dismissed with an interval when Anne, certain of marriage, finally agrees to sleep with him.

Julius D’Silva is superb as a thoroughly chilling Thomas Cromwell, a workaholic whose influence extends everywhere. The fact that he and Anne are allies on matters of religion doesn’t lend her any protection. No nonsense to the end, following Anne’s arrest, he barks at his minions to get on with the paperwork. There is also fine support from Sophie Duval as Anne’s nervy sister-in-law Lady Rochford, not willingly treacherous but a victim of Cromwell’s bullying, and Colin Hurley as a gluttonous Cardinal Wolsey.

Anne’s downfall is underplayed, perhaps because the accusations of incest and witchcraft are too ridiculous to rebuff. In a parallel scene to the community and hymn singing of the first act, we see Tyndale and his followers receive her less than cordially, but we don’t get to see Henry turn against her, denying us the full arc of a love that became as poisonous as it once was ardent. While not a perfectly constructed play with a rather weak conclusion, much of that can be forgiven.

John Dove’s exuberant direction with its rich detail (he previously directed Brenton’s In Extremis at the Globe) makes full use of the Globe’s innate sense of pageantry, filling the stage with luxurious velvets and satins. The fact that Brenton seems rather smitten with Anne Boleyn is hardly surprising – this was a formidably well-educated, intelligent and principled woman living in extraordinary times, who made the most of every opportunity that came her way.


Julia Rank

Julia is a Londoner who recently completed a MA in Victorian Studies at Birkbeck College. Resolutely living in the past until further notice, Julia finds enjoyment in exploring art galleries and museums, dabbling in foreign languages, rummaging in second hand bookshops, and cats.

Anne Boleyn Show Info

Directed by John Dove

Written by Howard Brenton

Cast includes Michael Bertenshaw, Sam Cox, Naomi Cranston, John Cummins, Ben Deery, Mary Doherty, Julius D’Silva, Sophie Duval, Will Featherstone, James Garnon, Peter Hamilton Dyer, Anthony Howell, Colin Hurley, Miranda Raison, Dickon Tyrell


Running Time 2 hrs 30 mins (including interval)



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