"I will be a new Queen for a new England," cries Spooks star Miranda Raison as King Hal's spooky spouse Anne Boleyn, with her head tucked underneath her arm; you just wonder, on the evidence of this spirited and enchanting portrait, how great she might have been, outshining even her own daughter, Elizabeth I.
It's certainly Howard Brenton's thesis that during her brief three-year marriage she played a major role in the political manoeuvres and religious in-fighting at Henry's court, furthering the cause of Protestantism in her enthusiasm for the Tyndale Bible.
But she was something of a Catholic, too, in her enthusiasm for her own virginity. Unlike her sister, an easy and earlier king's mistress, she stands firm against "condom" devices including such half measures as an amulet of hare's anus.
"A little further up your knee," pleads Anthony Howell's bluff King Hal after five years of courtship. Anne holds out for two more years then announces a 15-minute interval for a backstage quickie.
Raison is delightful even in the smuttier reaches of the script, repeating the performance of great wit and spirit she gave last year, when Brenton's play was a worthy award-winner. Always one of our most visceral playwrights, Brenton's been on a recent roll with his plays about Abelard and Héloise, and Saint Paul.
He's found more ideal material in Anne's alliance with William Tyndale (played as a West Country spellbinder by Peter Hamilton Dyer) and her battle with Colin Hurley's mountainous Wolsey and Julius D'Silva's brutal Thomas Cromwell.
The play is cunningly framed in another alliance, entirely fictional, with her daughter's successor to the throne, King James, who adopted the Tyndale Bible as his own. In James Garnon's compelling performance, James is a juddering jackanapes with an unbounded enthusiasm for Anne's wardrobe of 2000 dresses. "What did you start?" he asks Anne, meaning the hilarious scenes of clerical confusion in the second act, but also, perhaps, his cross-dressing fervour, which becomes a metaphor of religious upheaval.
These scenes are beautifully staged by John Dove, with a robust, non-heritage score by William Lyons played on virginals, dulcimer, bells, viols and percussion.
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