Monday, 20 February 2017

On the BBC's 1979 production of William Shakespeare's "Henry VIII" (1613)

Last night I saw Shakespeare's "Henry VIII" for the first time, which was quite the experience. It was the old BBC version from 1979 produced as part of the infamous 70s Bardathon. It stars John Stride (hitherto unknown to me) as Henry, with Timothy West and Claire Bloom (both very much known to me) as Cardinal Wolsey and Catherine of Aragon respectively. It also stars a young David Troughton, a young John Rhys Davies, a young Roger Lloyd Pack, and a "City of Death"-era Julian Glover.

The play itself, one of the latest to bear Shakespeare's name (it is generally dated to 1613 and is considered a collaboration with Fletcher), is an unusual beast. It's markedly different from his other historicals in that it consists almost entirely of talky political content in the manner of a less dramatic episode of Game of Thrones or, perhaps, House of Cards... It's about machinations, not warfare. No Agincourts or Shrewsburys here - and fair enough, given that he's writing about Henry VIII. Naturally he turns to the story that will preoccupy Hilary Mantel many centuries later - the infamous divorce with Catherine of Aragon and his marriage to Anne Boleyn. The play also makes much of the Machiavellian designs of Wolsey - who, along with Catherine, is the real key figure in the play rather than Henry - but also dwells on a lengthy subplot about the Duke of Buckingham's alleged treason; it's always nice to see Julian Glover & he speaks verse beautifully, but this section doesn't come across as especially relevant. The play doesn't really hang together as a whole much, either, with no sense of forward momentum or drama - it's a series of interesting enough sketches of Henry's reign. If there's one unifying principle, it's that everyone falls foul of Henry eventually - first Buckingham, then Catherine, then even his great adviser Wolsey, and the play closes with us the audience in full knowledge that young Anne Boleyn will eventually go the same way, as will many others. They rise like Icarus, but sooner or later they all come crashing down.

It's terribly well-acted, this production; West and Bloom in particular. The scenes where Catherine pleads her case before the court are marvellously affecting. The music and period feel is also reasonably good, even if the generally flat direction reminds me just how much things have moved on by the time The Hollow Crown comes along in 2012. It wasn't just Doctor Who that looked cheap and stagey in the late 70s, it seems.

The historical context of when Shakespeare was writing it is also interesting - given that the play ends in celebrating the birth of Elizabeth, who was responsible for putting to death the mother (Mary Queen of Scots) of the current king (James). Shakespeare and/or Fletcher get round this problem by a quite ludicrous, farcical moment in which Cranmer predicts at Elizabeth's baptism that she will one day be replaced by an equally great monarch, not of her line but of another, who will unite nations (i.e. England & Scotland). It's a humorous bit of pandering to the current status quo, though it's so daft I can't help wondering if it's mocking.

Interesting if by no means a masterpiece. 6/10.

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