THEATRE: Henry VIII RSC Swan Theatre

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The Independent Culture
Henry VIII

RSC Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon (01789 295623)

Anyone out there writing a play about Michael Howard? No? Well, for posterity's sake, perhaps somebody should. Several titles spring to mind: Howard's Way, The Sound of Silence, or a comedy version of the Al Pacino movie, And Justice for All.

"Has our correspondent taken leave of his senses," I hear you cry? Ah, but consider the case of little Billy Shakespeare. Nobody had a clue who he was, just some Elizabethan bod from outside Birmingham. Then he goes and writes a play about a recent king and his wicked sidekick, Cardinal Wolsey - the Tudor answer to Michael Howard - and before you can say "doublet and hose", he's the David Hare of his day.

Actually, it wasn't quite like that. (the play, not the man) comes towards the end of the Shakespeare canon. Mind you, no one's quite sure that he wrote it in the first place. Ever since 1850, literary academics, who like nothing better than an authorship wrangle, have been ferreting among the folios and telling the world that the play is a collaboration with John Fletcher, one half of the Beaumont and Fletcher double act. "Naaah," yells the opposing faction, "Shakespeare weren't nowhere near it. 'Twas Fletcher and Philip Massinger."

Whoever wrote it (and its impending inclusion in the new and spectacularly scholarly Arden edition of the complete works suggests that critical opinion has finally swung back to the Bard), it was sufficiently inflammatory to burn down the Globe Theatre in 1613, but that's art for you. Dangerous stuff at the best of times.

As the world knows, (the man, not the play) was in fact not a monarch but a six-part TV series with travelling costume display. Keith Michel set about marrying a different woman every week (damn promiscuous, those heterosexuals). Dr Quinn Medicine Woman starred in episode three... or was it Jane Seymour? Either way, everybody ended up smiling... except Anne Boleyn, but that's what happens when you get ideas above your station, become a jumped-up parvenue and change your name from Bullen.

Strange to relate, little of this crops up in Shakespeare's version, which doesn't even have the decency to tell us whether or not Henry really did compose "Greensleeves" - the "Mull of Kintyre" of its day. (He didn't.) Nevertheless, with the ludicrously underrated Paul Jesson in the title role, there's no excuse for missing Greg Doran's new RSC staging, which previews from Wednesday.