The moody overcast sky and the anniversary of the execution of George Boleyn in 1536 seemed fittingly portentous for the opening night of Fallen in Love in the Tower of London. The Suffolk-based Red Rose Chain are probably best known for their child-friendly summertime Shakespearean romps in the forest, which explode with energy, enthusiasm and humour. In contrast, this controversial play about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, the feisty queen executed by Henry VIII at the age of just 35, is turbulent and dark, almost a gothic prelude to the summer we’re still waiting for.
Written by Joanna Carrick, the play is a series of snapshots of crucial moments in Anne’s life, charting her early adulthood, the fateful attentions of the king, and her constant struggle to bear a male heir and to make Henry love her, which ultimately leads to death. There’s a real sense of growing tension as the scenes become shorter and faster, with the contrast of delightful and poignant moments where Anne and her brother George seek escape in regression to childhood, fooling around with silly voices and singing ballads.
This brings us to the controversy: Carrick’s play centres not on the relationship between Anne and Henry, but on that between Anne and George. We all know of the vivacious, daring woman who captured the heart of a king and had him turn the country upside down so they could marry. Fallen in Love takes us deeper, presenting Anne and George as physical and emotional personalities with desires and ambitions, and leaving the audience to decide the truth of the charge of incest brought against them. The production feels like a historical novel brought to life on the stage, and it is no coincidence that Tudor historian and author Alison Weir has lent her support.
Fallen in Love, like much historical fiction, presents the often ignored side of history: the female version of the story. Carrick makes clear Anne’s purpose as a political tool at a time when women were generally regarded as mere chattels, and the devastating birth of a second princess in a society ruled by men. Anne could only exercise her power through men, and this frustration is skilfully presented by Emma Connell as the leading lady. Connell is particularly convincing as the young favourite of the king, exasperated after six years of holding off Henry’s sexual advances until the legitimation of the affair by marriage. Scott Ellis’s portrayal of George is also thoroughly enjoyable, contrasting the boisterousness of youth and his deep affection for his sister Anne.
The play ends with a moving speech from each sibling before their executions. Unfortunately, this tragic atmosphere is spoiled by the final image of Anne and George reunited in heaven as white petals fall from above; it seems Carrick decided she had to add an imaginary happy ending to this sad tale, and it feels rather tacky. This is soon forgotten, though, when you walk out through the Tower and remember that Anne was imprisoned, executed and buried right here. What could be better than a powerful production staged where the action actually happened all those years ago?
Fallen in Love is at the Tower of London on selected dates in May and June until June 16. It is also being performed at Gippeswyk Hall in Ipswich. For more information and to book tickets, please visit the Fallen in Love website.