Henry VIII, presented by the Oregon Shakespeare  Festival at the Elizabethan Stage/Allen Pavilion in Ashland, Oregon, 2 June - 9 October 2009

 Geoff Ridden
Southern Oregon University

  Geoff Ridden. “Review of Henry VIII, presented by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival at the Elizabethan Stage/Allen Pavilion in Ashland, Oregon, 2 June - 9 October 2009." Early Modern Literary Studies 15.2 (2010-11): 18.1-9 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/15-2/revhen.htm>

Directed by John Sipes, Assistant Director Ed Sylvanus Iskander, Scenic Design by Michael Ganio, Costume Design by Susan E. Mickey, Lighting Design by Alexander V. Nichols, Music and sound composed and designed by Todd Barton, Dramaturg Alan Armstrong, Voice and Text Director Scott Kaiser,  Fight Director John Sipes, Choreographer Suzee Grilley, Stage Manager Jeremy Eisen, Production Assistant Karl Alphonso, Assistant Fight Director Christopher DuVal, Casting Nicole Arbusto & Joy Dickinson.

With Elijah Alexander (King Henry VIII), Anthony Heald (Cardinal Wolsey), Vilma Silva (Queen Katherine), Christine Albright (Anne Bullen/Boleyn, Ensemble), Richard Howard (Duke of Norfolk, Ensemble), Michael Elich (Buckingham, Ensemble), Derrick Lee Weeden (Lord Chamberlain, Ensemble), Demetra Pittman (Old Lady, Ensemble), Gregory Linington (Duke of Suffolk, Ensemble), Cristofer Jean (Gentleman, Chancellor, Ensemble), John Pribyl (Gentleman, Campieus, Ensemble), Tyrone Wilson (Sands, Ensemble), Anish Jethmalani (Surveyor, Surrey, Ensemble), David Kelly (Archbishop Cranmer), Howie Seago (Griffith, Ensemble), Jonathan Haugen (Gardiner, Ensemble) Todd Bjurstrom (Thomas Cromwell, Ensemble). Ensemble: Ryan Anderson, Eddie Lopez, Tumaini Rivera, Mariko Nakasone, Holly Noelle Edwards, Benjamin Sheppard, Fune Tautala Jr., Jordan Leigh Wakefield.

  1. I last saw Henry VIII at the Barbican, London, in 1994, and it has not been staged at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival since 1984. The year 2009 marks the 500th anniversary of the accession of Henry VIII, and one might have expected more anniversary productions of Shakespeare's play, especially as it is now rarely undertaken except by companies with a commitment to performing the entire canon. The contemporary neglect contrasts with the play’s popularity in the nineteenth century theatres, when there was a greater appetite for the staging of epic dramas, the more elaborate the better.

  2. The size of the cast of the OSF production, numbering over twenty actors in all, gives an indication of the large scale nature of this production. That ambition was carried through in the imaginative use of the available space in the OSF’s outdoor theatre, in the sumptuous costumes, and in the many visual treats offered to the audience. The text of Henry VIII sometimes calls for spectacular scenes and at other points has characters tell us of splendid events which have happened offstage. This production, through careful re-working of the text, tried to make the spectacle take place onstage whenever possible. It was evident that there had been a great deal of attention to the text as well as to the staging, and it is worth charting those changes in detail.

  3. Many changes were made to enhance the level of spectacle in the play. This production did not include the Prologue or the Epilogue, but did stage the Field of the Cloth of Gold as a magnificent opening tableau, so that the first line of the text to be spoken was I.i.46.  Good use of the space was made in II.i., in that Henry, rather than being discovered by the drawing of a curtain, was in plain view on the upper level, at prayer as a pious monarch: thus, we were constantly reminded of Henry in that posture even while other  characters were talking of him. In addition, at the beginning of IV.i, the decision was taken to actually show the Coronation, rather than have the Gentlemen describe it. The most imaginative of these changes involved the casting of the character Griffith: in IV.i, we have, again, a scene in which one character tells another of off-stage events, in this case the death of Wolsey. Rather than stage the events themselves, the production cast a deaf actor, Howie Seago in the role of Griffith, with the effect that, as he signed his narrative to Katherine, she spoke his words, mediated through her own reactions.

  4. Other textual changes were designed to simplify the play’s narrative. The complexity of the opening act was simplified by the removal of many of the references to those involved in intrigues: there are many names to cope with in the full text, and in this production we lost references to Hopkins, Perk and de la Car. Buckingham was also given his real family name of Stafford in I.ii., rather than the name Bohun which is in the text, thus sparing the audience some puzzlement as to who this Bohun might be. There was also some redistribution of lines and merging of roles in the early scenes: the lines of Abergevenny, for example, were given to Norfolk. This in no way impeded the main trajectory of the plot.

  5. Some lengthy speeches were also cut: the long list of “articles” with which Wolsey was charged in III.ii was pared down, as was the whole of Katherine’s dream vision. The opening of the final Act was re-shaped, so that Norfolk replaced Lovell in V.i, the business of Dr. Butts and the King spying on the Council Meeting went from V.ii, and V.iii was deleted completely. In the final scene, Anne was present onstage, and therefore Henry’s final speech was amended. Cranmer's lengthy encomium on Elizabeth and James was also pruned.

  6. The production used the different levels of the Elizabethan Stage with great elegance. The play opened with Wolsey, as puppet-master, on a level above the rest of the players, and, at the interval (taken after the end of Act II) the four principals were placed on stage on different levels: Henry downstage centre; Katherine above; Wolsey stage left; Anne stage right. However, the loveliest staging effect (and one that it took time to realize was happening) was the projections onto the panels of the reconstructed Elizabethan tiring house; these changed from scene to scene, to indicate the nature of the location in which the action was taking place.

  7. Both spectacle and clever staging were used during the trial of Katherine (II.iv). The full ensemble appeared on stage, but the focus was clearly on Katherine, an effect cleverly contrived by having Henry be seated on his throne on top of the vomitarium, thus being onstage and offstage at the same time. There was a real poignancy in the performance by Elijah Alexander in the scene: a sense of this youthful Henry's lost love for his Queen.

  8. The production contained other excellent performances. Vilma Silva was flawless as Queen Katherine, playing the part with a Spanish accent that emphasised her vulnerability as a stranger in a foreign land. Michael Elich’s excellent performance as Buckingham was an interesting reminder of his role as an earlier Buckingham in Richard III at the OSF back in 2005.  Anthony Heald, who plays Shag (Shakespeare) in Equivocation, made a fine de casibus hero of Wolsey in this production, and got the biggest laugh of the evening (for a line which is not even intended to be funny) when, in III.ii, he dismisses Anne disparagingly as a “Lutheran”: I do not recall this joke working so well in London in 1994, but then, of course, the Lutheran church is still alive and well in the USA.

  9. This was a very successful production in terms of its visual appeal and its use of space. It seemed a bold move to stage such a rarely-performed work in the Festival’s largest theatre, but, on reflection, it would not have been nearly as effective without the opportunity to work for spectacle. My sense is that this was not a production which was to the taste of all audiences, but, as with Titus Andronicus in 2002, OSF decided not to hide away a lesser-known work on a smaller stage, but to present it with courage and commitment, and with an actress of considerable calibre in its central role.


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.

© 2011-, Annaliese Connolly and Matthew Steggle (Editors, EMLS).