Having just completed its latest run at the Globe, Howard Brenton’s relatively new play Anne Boleyn at Malvern Theatre had me expecting nothing but the best Britain has to offer. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, that is a massive understatement; I loved every minute of this fantastic production.
My first fear that the show wouldn’t translate well to Malvern Theatre’s Victorian proscenium arch stage was immediately proved unfounded. With the cast joyfully engaging in asides they were in full conversation with the audience from the word go. The acting was some of the best I’ve seen in any theatrical production. While the entirety of the cast were superb, two people stood out: the eponymous heroine played by Jo Herbert and King James played by James Garnon both commanded the stage whenever they set foot upon it. Both actors seemed so comfortable in their roles that it was difficult to distinguish how much of it was acting, which is what acting should be. James Garnon beautifully represented what I believe to be James I’s suspected porphyria. The symptoms slowly developed throughout the piece to something quite unsettling towards the end, in a manner not dissimilar to David Haig’s recent portrayal of George III. Jo Herbert on the other hand masterfully showed Anne for all her strengths and weaknesses; we were presented with a strong and resilient woman, but one guilty of cardinal sins of envy and lust. This was no two-dimensional examination of a historical figure, but one saturated in subtext and demonstrating what it is to be human in an unforgiving world. The rest of the cast acted as truly marvellous supports to these two main roles, with Colin Hurley’s portrayal of Cardinal Wolsey being particularly amusing.
The set, designed by Michael Taylor, seemed to be trying to replicate the Globe’s stage, with the usual entranceways and platform for the musicians above the action. The stage was adorned with a tree covered, anachronistically, in light bulbs that were used to represent the passing of time. This was what the main lighting design by Paul Russell achieved too; it suggested setting and time of day, which it achieved brilliantly. Aside from this the occasional chair was brought on to suggest a scene change. This minimalistic approach worked wonders with the focus being on the acting and costume, the latter being beautifully re-created Tudor garments which gleamed and shone in the light throughout, giving a real atmospheric sense of implied grandeur.
There was beautiful live incidental music throughout, composed by William Lyons and played at key moments thereby heightening the drama on stage ever-so subtly. Occasionally we would be treated (I really do mean treated!) to either a Tudor-style song or dance at various points during the production and this just further aided my immersion into the wondrous world on stage.
I genuinely cannot recommend this show enough and I implore anyone in Malvern to see it post-haste, and failing that to catch it on its tour around the UK. Malvern Theatre was packed with people of all ages and every single person I could hear was joyfully singing the show’s praises in a cacophony of awe for an experience we’d all just shared. This was a fabulous production and absolutely one not to be missed!
Anne Boleyn is playing at the Malvern Theatre until 28 April before continuing on its tour. For more information on tour dates see the Globe Theatre website.