Twice this season director Paul Mullins and the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey have taken chances in choosing to stage infrequently produced plays rather than opt for the safe and familiar. Mullins’ revival of Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple was a wonderful and surprising production and his take on Shakespeare’s late and very rarely produced Henry VIII is similarly successful. In both cases, Mullins makes the audience wonder why these rarities aren’t performed more often.
History has cast Henry as a capricious, selfish, opulent king, more concerned with personal pursuits than official duties. But Henry VIII, a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, was written during the reign of James I, scarcely more than decade after the death of Elizabeth I. To risk lampooning her father would not have been a safe political endeavor for any artist, let alone one who wrote for The King’s Men, a company patronized by a monarch with a Tudor claim to the throne. The result of his maneuvering provides us instead with two fascinating and complex characters in Cardinal Wolsey and Queen Katherine.
Wolsey (Philip Goodwin) is Henry’s most trusted advisor in issues personal and political as well as religious. This breeds contempt and suspicion among other nobles of the King’s court, but Wolsey is unflappably confident in himself and his position at the King’s side. It is little secret that the Cardinal advises the King with selfishly ambitious goals in mind, but Goodwin’s Wolsey will neither crack nor show signs of weakness under the constant pressure from the court nobles. We hear well enough from Shakespeare’s more famous villains’ own mouths about their treachery, but Wolsey is brilliantly stalwart in his commitment to the charade of selfless goodness. In Goodwin’s capable hands, the character seems regularly appalled and dumbfounded by the barrage of accusations, as if he has fully bought into his own pretense.
Much of that pretense will be dedicated to engineering the King’s divorce from his first wife on the grounds that she was previously married to his brother, thereby making the marriage incestuous and void from its outset. Never mind that Henry’s wandering eye has already landed on another woman and that the Cardinal has a more beneficial political match in mind: the King and Wolsey commit fully to the religious and moral grounding of the divorce. But Queen Katherine (Jessica Wortham) will have none of it. She sees through the King’s pretense and, more pointedly, sees how the Cardinal is guiding Henry towards an outcome most beneficial to Wolsey.
In a number of stirring speeches, the Queen unloads on Wolsey, the King, and any other influential man who will give lip service to her banishment from the court. Wortham gives us a queen who is a sharp of mind as she is of tongue, one who will not allow herself to be cast out without first giving voice to the hypocrisy running rampant through the Royal chambers. This is not a queen who will suffer silently and obediently, but one far stronger in her conviction, if not ultimately in her political clout.
On a strikingly sparse set designed by Charlie Calvert, with a boldly stark lighting design to match by Michael Giannitti, this Henry VIII is not an exercise in pageantry (in fact a fantastical vision from late in the play is only suggested rather than staged). Rather, Mullins treats the text on its own terms, demonstrating clearly that this is a play that can stand on its own.