The Complete Works Festival in Stratford ventures upriver from the RSC's three official venues and colonises Holy Trinity Church, the Bard's final resting place, for this attractive production by AandBC Company of Shakespeare's late, collaborative play, Henry VIII. The mellowing evening sun pours in through the stained glass windows on a staging that arranges the audience along the nave like a parliament or congregation in two opposing banks of raked seating. This leaves a lengthy, narrow acting area and though spectators may succumb to Wimbledon Neck as their attention is swivelled from one end to the other, it proves to be an apt configuration for the play's series of factional disputes and its catalogue of morality play downfalls.
Henry VIII is a piece in which the power of the rhetoric rises when the fortunes of the principals - the virtuous Duke of Buckingham (Derek Hutchinson); Cardinal Wolsey (a tubby, devious Anthony O'Donnell) and Corinne Jaber's flashing, mettlesome Katherine of Aragon - irreversibly decline. The architecture of the church is a boon, allowing these figures to make haunting exits, to the sound of spectral counter-tenor.
The play, whose accurate title is All Is True, is a curious mix of commitment and impartiality, history and romance. It manages to celebrate the birth of England as a Protestant nation, while allowing Katherine an eloquent defence of the validity of her marriage. There can't be many works of Protestant propaganda that grant a Catholic Queen a vision of heaven (beautifully handled here).
Dramatically, though, the effect can feel evasive rather than inclusive. Gregory Thompson's production compensates for this by emphasising the humour of its tolerant spirit. It gives witty weight to the variety of viewpoints on offer. For example, in a scene where the ladies-in-waiting gossip over their sewing, Cara Kelly is a delight as a down-to-earth Scot who more or less tells Aoife McMahon's bewitching, pre-Raphaelite Anne Boleyn to come off it when she piously claims she would not be Queen "for all the riches under heaven". "Tis strange," she counters, "a threepence bow'd would hire me".
The sickening fulsomeness prophecies at Elizabeth's christening is here offset by the infant performing her - an alert, silent, lovely child who had the audience spell-bound. Her agent should negotiate a pay-rise.
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