Shakespeare’s Last Oratorio

Shakespeare’s Henry VIII is more like an oratorio than an opera. It is organized around a theme–the road kill of Queens and courtiers who fly too close to the royal sun–rather than a coherent narrative. Its characters take on real life only when they step forward from the background of pageantry and address the audience directly, in long, brilliant arias of summation that suspend ordinary dramatic time. It is stately and processional rather than passionate and urgent. It is good to see it on stage from time to time, but with its intricately described visions, dumb shows and processions, it can embarrass theater directors. Perhaps it’s best to read it, rather than see it staged.

The new production of Henry VIII at the Folger Shakespeare Theatre takes none of the above for granted. It is staged as drama, a fast-paced chamber drama, with ominous music and a palpable, almost melodramatic sense of danger. Katherine’s vision has been cut, as have the processions and pageantry. There is no air between scenes, which flow rapidly together, the whole thing transpiring in about 2 ½ hours.

It works, though the director Robert Richmond must summon exceptional artifice to make it all hang together. His best trick is the insertion of a character alluded to in the prologue–the king’s jester, Will Sommers–but otherwise absent from the text of the play. The jester figure, played by Louis Butelli, helps weave the episodic scenes together, using puppets and handfuls of imaginary, magic dust to suspend the action, or puncture quotidian reality. Butelli is one of the strongest actors in the cast, playing not just the scornful, ironic jester, but multiple smaller roles as well. For some reason, however, he skips the epilogue.

Sound designer Anthony Cochrane is also the composer, and plays a large role in suggesting the world beyond the limited space of the Folger’s small stage. Dogs bark in the garden, footsteps echo in cavernous halls, and voices, unfortunately, are subjected to excess reverberation for cinematic effect. It casts a spell, but is it the right one? The director writes that he and his team weren’t interested in the usual, “large-scale epic drama, full of spectacle and pageantry.” Instead, they wanted to take the audience “through the keyhole into the back rooms…” But the soundscape suggests grand halls and wide vistas, and the music is standard movie background fare. It is mildly dissonant with the larger goal of keeping the audience’s attention squarely on the details of the drama.

No matter. Despite the efforts at focusing minutely on character interaction, Shakespeare’s original design isn’t so easily subverted. The most powerful moments of the show are the famous solo turns, the final speech of Buckingham on his way to the axe; the Queen’s glorious confrontation with the unctuous cardinals who would decide her fate; and Wolsey’s downfall and sudden self-revelation.

Anthony Cochrane’s Wolsey is crude and rough-hewn, smirking and crass. I imagine this character–low born but infinitely ambitious–with more of a scholar’s polish on him, the smartest boy in the class turned most powerful man in the kingdom, a smooth-talking operator who has learned to ape the manners of the nobility he manipulates. Cochrane’s Wolsey is more a Rahm Emanuel figure. But Cochrane does manage the brilliant burst of insight that comes only upon Wolsey’s downfall, and he finesses the greatest challenge of the role, moving seamlessly from comeuppance to epiphany.

All roads lead to Elizabeth in this play, and again the weirdness of Shakespeare’s design overwhelms any effort to weave the play’s loose narrative threads into an ordinary drama. The fawning paean to Elizabeth works, as it always does, a blast of pure ideology scattering the petty clouds of history and drama. Richmond’s best insight is saved for this final scene. By cutting lines, and lopping off the epilogue, the title character is marooned in his own play. Henry, almost always a cipher though a robust one in Ian Merrill Peake’s performance, is suddenly a lost figure, a smaller king, reduced to merely a sire of Elizabeth. He’s not an easy king to love, nor anyone’s favorite Shakespearean ogre; but suddenly he’s almost touchingly pathetic.

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