By Howard Brenton; Directed by Colin McColl
Auckland Theatre Company
Q Theatre, Auckland | June 13-July 13
In my first year of university, I came across the published version of Anne Boleyn when I was scanning through their library of plays. I picked it up because of my fascination with the woman and fell in love with it immediately; I even copied some of the exchanges down into a document I have around somewhere. Howard Brenton uses these famous historical figures in such an intelligent and bracing way, such as to discuss religion, the nature of faith, and how people use it to justify their own desires. He also finds a way to be structurally inventive and engaging with a subject matter that could have been stale, and this excited me as a student. Even now, the script has me buzzing. So with this production Auckland Theatre Company had high expectations to meet.
And they’ve been met. Colin McColl’s Anne Boleyn is an undeniable success: it’s spectacular, it’s fun, and it brings out the intelligence of Brenton’s work in similarly inventive ways. The play follows James I as he discovers Anne’s bible, and also follows Anne in her quest to bring Protestantism to England, a quest that conveniently lines up with her desire to marry Henry VIII. The play effortlessly switches between the two, giving us an image of both times during periods of religious difficulty, and how the people of court—people in power, more importantly—deal with them.
This craft on display is the first thing you notice about this production. The set design, courtesy of Rachel Walker, is a brilliant clash of romantic Catholicism (the Eden-esque tree at the back of the stage) and bare-bones Protestantism (the metal beams that loom over the stage and actors). Phillip Dexter’s lighting is also very expressive and there are some absolutely breathtaking moments thanks to the lighting, especially the scenes in the forest and the final scene.
But for me at least, the craft MVP is Elizabeth Whiting. This woman can do no wrong when it comes to costumes, be it period or contemporary. She combines the two delightfully here, mixing Elizabethan fashions with a more contemporary rock and roll style. It pervades the entire show, from James’s rockstar get-up to the women’s punkier dresses. However, her key success here is with Anne’s costumes. The gorgeous dress, worn by her and tossed around by James early on, is a thing of beauty; a stunning mix of red and black with lots of gorgeous, shiny fabric and sequins, and there is a jacket that she wears during the costume scenes that I absolutely covet and would wear every day. The more subtle touches are also genius, like Anne’s handbag and Villers’s shirt having ‘James 4 King’ emblazoned across the front. Whiting’s designs mesh perfectly with Brenton’s writing—intelligent, inventive, but with a wicked sense of humour.
Despite the impressive craft, the play really rests on the cast, namely the two leads, Anne Boleyn and James I. And it’s very fortunate that the two leads, Anna Julienne and Stephen Lovatt, are flat-out amazing. Lovatt’s James I is a capricious character, but an intelligent one. He plays his courtiers as they try and settle on a religion like they’re instruments, which suits his rockstar costume. Lovatt’s comic timing is brilliant, and his Scottish accent delightfully overplayed, but he also makes the King’s obsession with Anne Boleyn genuinely felt, and it’s due to his performance that the two plots are more tightly wound together. It helps that Lovatt is also a charismatic performer; you want to watch him and you want to watch more of him.
On the other side, Anna Julienne is absolutely masterful in the role of Anne Boleyn. It’s a huge ask of an actor, to step into a role that has been played by so many others in so many other forms and stories, but Julienne’s take on the role here is brilliant and well-considered without reinventing the wheel. Her Anne ticks all the boxes that we’ve come to expect from an actress performing this role; she’s seductive, she can switch between girlish and womanly on a dime, but Julienne lends her Anne a fervour and drive that I’ve not seen in an Anne before, and not just for the king, but for her faith. It’s Julienne’s performance that really drives this theme home and even more crucially, complicates it for the audience: does Anne want this Reformation for her marriage or is her faith truly pure and unburdened by human wants and desires? We never settle on an answer, but from her coquettish opening monologue to her more sombre, if still charismatic finale, Julienne is utterly captivating and notches another impressive performance in a long list of them—and yet a definitive take on this much-travelled role.
The rest of the fourteen-strong cast don’t have as many opportunities to shine as the two leads, but there’s not a weak link among them. Clair Dougan’s Lady Rochford has moments of true gravitas, especially in the second half, and Paul Minifie makes for a larger-than-life Wolsey, one who seems worthy of both his position and the hatred thrown at him. George Henare and Ken Blackburn serve some much-needed comic relief as James I’s advisors, and nail their jokes very nicely. Prast’s Cromwell is a definite highlight: his cruelty and menace sums up a history of politicians manipulating religion for their own ends, and his scenes with Julienne are where the play is lifted into another arena entirely.
On the whole, McColl’s vision of this brilliant play works perfectly. There’s only a few moments scattered throughout where it falters: the dancing seems like too much of a throwback for the visuals which are striving for modernism and some of the choices seem peculiarly dated, like Villiers’s being almost distractingly foppish. On the whole, though, it’s a production that is more than worthy of the great script that Brenton provides.
This play would be worth seeing for the costumes and the two leads alone. But even that aside, it’s an enjoyable, intelligent production of a play that dares to use our past mistakes and follies to bring up a theme that’s still relevant today: the use of religion and faith as a tool for our own wants. This, beyond anything else, is why you need to see this play. This is necessary theatre.