Review: Hasland Theatre Company’s dramatic feast in Anne Boleyn

Heather Davies as Anne Boleyn.
Heather Davies as Anne Boleyn.

We just can’t get enough of the Tudors, Elizabethans and Stuarts, it seems.

And for anyone wanting to savour more of this gripping period of our history, Hasland Theatre Company’s production of Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn was an invitation to a dramatic feast rivalling Henry VIII’s renowned sumptuous banquets.

It was a substantial, two-and-a-half hours affair, but our attention never waned as director Nicky Beards and a fine cast maintained the pace essential to cover much historical ground, yet with poignant, emotionally-charged scenes baring the soul of this most intriguing of Henry’s six wives.

Heather Davies excelled as Anne, strong yet vulnerable, in control and resisting Henry’s attention at first, but seeing the opportunity to become his queen when he announces his intention to divorce Catherine of Aragon and pronounce himself head of a new Church of England, separated from Rome and the Pope.

“I will be a new queen for a new England,” she declares.

For Anne, too, this is the chance to further her own ideas of religious reform, holding secret meetings with William Tyndale (Tristan Weston), whose Bible translation she treasures.

One man stands in her way, however, the most powerful in the Tudor court, Thomas Cromwell. An all-round Mr Fixit for Henry, he certainly fixed it for Anne, with a trumped-up charge accusing her of sleeping with five other men, including her own brother, while married to the king. Chris Scott’s Cromwell perfectly combined smoothness with menace, a conspiratorial figure not to be trusted.

Brenton offered fresh insights into Anne’s life and death by leaping backwards and forwards decades to the reign of James I of England and James VI of Scotland. Steve Cowley gave a towering performance as the Stuart monarch, obsessed with the character of Anne, his grandmother. It was impossible to take eyes off him.

He discovers her coronation gown in an old chest, together with a copy of Tyndale’s Bible and a locket with miniature portraits of Elizabeth I and Anne, her mother. This was an edgy, unpredictable yet ultimately subdued James, his bi-sexual promiscuity - we see him wearing Anne’s gown while flirting with George Villiers (James Bryan) - subsiding as he sets in motion the creation of what we know as the King James’ Bible.

Back in Tudor times, David Brooks was every inch the enigmatic figure of Henry, wooing Anne with letters and songs and consoling her when their first child is a girl (Elizabeth) and she then gives birth to a stillborn son.

Was it the lack of a male heir from Anne, or Cromwell’s connivance, which sealed her death sentence, beheaded at the Tower of London on May 19, 1536?

Sumptuous costumes and a simple yet highly effective set fixed us firmly back in time, and others deserving special mention included Rob Dean (Lord Robert Cecil), Clare Snape (Lady Rochford) John Belli (Cardinal Wolsey), who also played another clergyman, Dean Lancelot Andrews, in a wonderful scene of a five-hour debate with Puritan Dr John Reynolds (Harry Holloway) on finer points of theology, while their audience nodded off.

Anne Boleyn is at Hasland Playyhouse until Saturday, April 8.