Saturday, Oct. 18, saw the stirring premiere of a new production of Shakespeare’s late history play “Henry VIII” staged for the first time in 30 years at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. Director Paul Mullins, in his 22nd year with the company, led a cast of 15 in a streamlined edition of the work that omits many minor characters and lots of dialogue. With debuts in the roles of both queens, this incandescent production places “Henry VIII” squarely on the map where it belongs.
The action focuses on Henry’s divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, played by Jessica Wortham (debut), who was best in her heartfelt appeal to Henry and her blazing confrontation with Cardinal Wolsey, deftly played by Philip Goodwin with quavering voice and righteous sanctimony. As Henry, the venerable David Foubert turned in a commanding performance with a tendency to growl and bark, tempering his volume better in the work’s second half. The marriage breaker, Anne Bullen (as Shakespeare spelled Boleyn), a secondary character, was portrayed by Katie Wieland (debut), who danced winsomely and deployed a lovely singing voice.
Political and religious controversy conjoin in this majestic history play, in scenic designer Charlie Calvert’s handsome set and opulent costumes of satin, silk, flocked velvet and furs by costume designer Hugh Hanson. These disputes saw the downfall of the pompous, hectoring Duke of Buckingham (Thomas Michael Hammond); Cardinal Wolsey’s disgrace; the near debacle of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury (Clark Scott Carmichael) and, of course, the dethronement and degradation of Katherine—her undeserved fall from queen to dowager princess.
Shakespeare gave only moderate attention to Anne’s ascendency, mostly occurring offstage and reported by gossiping secondary characters. Her only appearances in the play’s second half are in pantomime: her coronation and the christening of baby Elizabeth. In that final scene the Bard engaged in a bit of shameless homage to then-Queen Elizabeth I, by directing to the baby an “oracle of comfort” (Henry’s words). In his lengthy speech he foretold for England bounteous peace and security and “Upon this land a thousand thousand blessings” under her future reign—words assured to honor his royal patron.
Michael Early debuted as Lord Chamberlain, a secondary character. His rich, resonant, burnished baritone was pleasing; it will be gratifying to see more of his work.
In her opening comments Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte lamented the neglect of “Henry VIII.” The printed program’s “Director’s Notes” includes a comment by Gordon McMullan of London’s Kings College that “If people know anything at all about ‘Henry VIII’ (the play) they are most likely to know that it caused the destruction of the Globe Theatre” in 1613. It was then that cannon fire, part of the lavish production, set the thatching ablaze. Let’s hope that The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s splendid production reignites worldwide interest in this worthy stage play of outsize passions.