Brighton Fringe 2022
Directed by Tess Gill, Steven Adams, Stage Manager/Props Bradley Coffey. Set Design Construction and Painting Steven Adams; Set Construction the Cast & Crew; Special Set Construction Jay smith. Lighting Sound Design Beverley Grover, Lighting and Sound Operation Steven Adams; Costumes Bradley Coffey, Madeleine Clench, Photography Miles Davies.
With special thanks to Gladrags, Henfield Theatre Company, Felicity Clements.
Till May 14th.
Howard Brenton baldly entitles his 2010 Globe play Anne Boleyn. Just possibly The Ghost of Anne Boleyn as seen By James I When Drunk doesn’t quite have the same ring. And – inexplicably – mightn’t pull in Globe punters. It might though give you more of an idea of the play’s swerve from 1519-36 to 1607 and back; and back.
Brenton’s already written one of his more formally innovative plays. But Brighton Little Theatre and directors Tess Gill and Steven Adams can’t help themselves, helping Brenton into an even more radically pointed theatre work. At two hours twenty it has to entertain in a tiny space. And it does. In spades, axes, and… bibles.
‘Guess what I’ve got in this sack’ challenges Kemi Greene’s blissfully confident Anne, brazen in her white shift. She plucks out a bible, William Tyndale’s proscribed English translation. Were you thinking something else? You’re not wrong. That comes next. Neither of these Greek gifts are off stage for long.
That’s a matter of debate, as they’re mostly not there as we switch to 1607, as we do for a long stretch at the start of Act II. Chris Church’s James I though does pluck that bible, which he uses as the basis of his own commissioned 1611 version – oops, a spoiler. But he also plucks out Anne’s glittering white bridal dress. He smells it, orders it burnt, then relents. At the start of Act 2 he’s wearing it, even more kissing George Villiers, Daniel Carr’s wonderfully blockish and behatted upper class twit; shrewd enough to enjoy the king’s favour and curry roast beef common-sense.
He enjoys though a contrasting role: William Tyndale. That’s the key to this production: Anne isn’t simple victim or calculator. She’s a heretical Protestant, wants Church reform, regal independence where she too will be vindicated (divorce now legal) and more influential, queen to an unshackled king. Think Brexit – from a theocracy ruled not by Brussels, but Rome. The latter though really did have teeth, there were benefits – and terrible civil wars.
A political play, there’s two theological debates threaded by Tyndale’s Protestantism, knitting extremists eighty years apart; igniting what by James I’s time is long termed Puritanism. The latter debate, with super-canny James I refereeing, is a Brenton set-piece.
Greene’s commanding throughout. Playful, with absolute comic timing, witty, imperious, vulnerable, coquettish, calculating. Greene’s quicksilver reaction shadows Anne’s, negotiating a world where she’s plucked as sister of a cast-off mistress, and refuses to give herself for the life her sister Mary has.
Stage fluidity too allows Greene to make full use of the central aisle as she, Leigh Ward and a few others eyeball the audience. Stalking past demons to come, as Anne calls us.
Her reaction to Ward’s jocund, menacing Henry VIII runs through these, but also to each of the cast. Ward’s Henry isn’t so much consciously cruel but needs others to be so. Ward edges callousness, a commanding ring, veiled in cheer and dispatch.
To Carr’s Tyndale Greene’s at first supplicant, enthused, and in the second meeting pleading as her offer through Kez Price’s Thomas Cromwell fails to entice. Carr’s followers Jojo Hills and Sophia Metliss amplify disdain.
Price and Greene develop an edgy alliance, finely observed by both. Price is smoothness and sotto voce; never for the most part needing to raise a voice. Cromwell wants the same thing; can Anne deliver? Greene registers shock as first Tyndale then Cromwell discard her.
Church’s James is another smash. From lightning reflexes and unwavering Scottish hauteur, Church runs through amorousness with Carr’s Villiers, disdaining him when he oversteps, to undermining theological points, to rages in or out of his dress. Church like Greene has terrific energy and is a compelling watch. Like one or two others, he can push his voice to extremes, thus leave no fury in reserve. In this space voices ring. But make no mistake: his James is riveting.
Several parts are memorably taken. Chris Berry’s Robert Cecil in James’ court is the only restraining factor, rolling eyes as James’ flagrant sexuality and crude jokes snap to theology.
Jojo Hills plays Lady Celia as the more heedless of the two ladies-in-waiting around Anne. Sophia Metliss suggests the simpering Jane Seymour knows she’s a waiting woman in the wings. Less clever, less ambitious, a head more shrewd.
Chloe McEwan’s Lady Rochford is a delight. Steady, conscience-struck, compromised every time she’s forced to choose love for Anne or a bit of the rack, she’s inside this tellingly anguished role.
Peter Jukes’ malign Cardinal Wolsey is a study in adamantine power edged with corruption, with a whiff of the Inquisition. Jukes is memorable in this as in the brief depiction of Jacobean Henry Barrow the extreme Puritan brought in by mutual consent by ‘moderate Puritan’ John Reynolds, played with gravelly authority by Neil Fitzgerald; who also revels in the flinching, put-upon Simpkin, another of Cromwell’s scribe cadets.
Jukes sparks off Fitzgerald and flails wildly at Dean Lancelot Andrewes, Olivia Jeffery’s soft-spoken Anglican divine (she also plays Sloop, another hapless servant). After Jukes’ departure there’s more between Fitzgerald and Jeffery, agreeing a meeting-place of their theology, using Jukes’ Barrow as foil. James though outwits the lot of them, with heretical Tyndale. The clarity of this debate is commendable, the company never miss a beat.
Rosalind Caldwell takes put-upon Parrot with a laconic shrug and flinch (‘speak, Parrot’ Cromwell commands the hapless scribe, mocking them with Skelton’s famous poem); and another, John.
Period costumes are sourced and worked by Bradley Coffey, Madeleine Clench, with various thanks. There’s mainly old red in the mix in the Tudor court, each dress a different patterning around the bodice, and an apex for Henry VIII. The Jacobean court is more sober: blacks, except the cardinals and the stripy buff and bottle-green/black hat of Villiers.
As ever the feel of a BLT production and the almost repertory company who play here lends a fluency and conviction that’s rare. Adams is responsible too for the set design (with Jay Smith crafting severed heads etc), with Beverley Grover’s lighting design integral. Upstage appear a malice of toppling menhirs hoiked out of Stonehenge, but abstract in nature. Some lean towards the centre and equally upstage a dais where a throne often squats focuses this stark world. Lighting does the rest.
Brenton though doesn’t allow this Anne to go quietly. James I and she certainly have things to debate, and Anne things to say to us. It’s a stompingly subtle romp through debate, agency, the restraint of women and power of tyrants then and now. Using historical evidence, Brenton and this production create an Anne for the 21st century. An Anne who arguably shaped our world far more than we knew.
If it’s drama you’re after in Brighton Fringe, this is one of the two or three essential stops. Thrilling, authoritative, with Greene the jewel in a sparkling ensemble.