Miranda Raison as Anne BoleynThe following review of Howard Brenton’s play “Anne Boleyn”, which was performed recently at Shakespeare’s Globe in London is written by Anne Boleyn Files visitor, Laura Pearson – Thanks so much, Laura!

Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare’s Globe

“It’s my Bible! Why? Don’t you realise? This killed me! This book!”

Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn, directed by John Dove, opens with an effervescent, vivacious Anne Boleyn. On entering the stage, with a blooded bag on her shoulder, Anne proceeds to tease the audience whether to show its contents. Eventually Anne does and pulls out a small book, much to the dismay of the crowd. The book is William Tyndale’s translation of the Bible, from Latin, into English, highlighting Anne’s philosophy that the Bible should belong to everyone. An ideal also shared by James I which Brenton uses as the connection throughout his play.

Anne continues to parade on stage voicing her notions of the Tyndale book then suddenly recognising the true intrigue of the crowd, she pulls out her severed head. The audience are immediately reminded of the outcome to this woman’s life.
Brenton’s opening, is a captivatingly alternative introduction to the story of Anne Boleyn, introducing the audience to a re-materialisation of Anne Boleyn immediately portrays an Anne we have, until now, never seen nor, a voice we have ever heard. At once the audience is entranced.

Brenton, not unlike historians, explores possibilities of Anne Boleyn’s downfall, a curiosity which has held many in deep discussion and contemplation. However, rather than speculation and theory, Brenton speaks his belief via James I, bringing action as well as words to his approach. A unique and gratifying technique.

Rather than tell the story during Anne’s era we are plunged into the reign of James I, and after clambering into a chest which was brought to him for amusement, he discovers two books. It soon becomes apparent that these books were hidden for a reason as one is the a translation of the New Testament by William Tyndale, and the other The Obedience of a Christian Man, also by Tyndale, which contains writing on the edges in the hand of Anne Boleyn. This then sets the scene for the rest of the play. By focusing attention to the books during the opening and within the next scene, Brenton is not only drawing connections in the play but is also identifying plausible reasons for Anne’s execution, rather than worrying about hearsay accusations.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, photo by Laura

In his writing, Brenton cleverly entwines two stories which seem so obviously associated but have never really been explored together in such a dynamic and engaging manner; the story of Anne Boleyn and her passion for a reformed church and the beginnings of the legacy of what became the the James I Bible.

James’s intention on finding out what happened to Anne and why she was executed runs as a subplot throughout, a tool Brenton uses to guide his audience to his Anne Boleyn. During the play James becomes haunted by Anne, at the very end, working out the reason for her fall.

JAMES. It was the money, wasn’t it. That’s why you fell.
ANNE. Men and the money.
JAMES. I looked at the records of the dissolution of the
monasteries I saw how Cromwell filched thousands. I
have an eye for accounts.
ANNE. The money was meant for schools, universities, houses
for the relief of the poor. Cromwell stole it.

Here we see Anne as Brenton wants us to see her; a woman who was dedicated not only in reforming the church, but refining education and revising relief for the poor. A woman who spoke a philosophy before her time, who had played the game among the men but was, tragically, not as quick witted to the likes of Cromwell. What is most refreshing is how Anne is not represented negatively. Brenton’s portrayal is of an intellectual, strong willed woman, who fought relentlessly against the men around her, not out of spite or malice, but out of necessity.

The stage, photo by Laura

The downfall of Anne is revealed during a conversation between Anne and James I and not through a plethora of questioning and torture by Cromwell’s men.

JAMES. You were going to tell King Henry.
ANNE. The last three weeks I was alive, I couldn’t speak to
Henry, couldn’t send a message. Cromwell cut me off. While he told his lies. Oh, how I begged. Beg beg beg, funny how you do that, when you’re going to die, you say you won’t but you do. Beg beg beg. But Henry was a good husband.

Here it becomes clear how Cromwell, to save his own head, deceived the King by making him believe Anne was sleeping with other men, among additional charges, not caring for the consequences this would have on Anne. Brenton has tastefully illustrated the events which followed Anne’s arrest through words rather than action and this makes for a more touching reaction. We have, after all, already seen the severed head, so we do not need to see it being severed. What I found most enlightening about this particular scene was how clear Brenton made it. We are not overshadowed, as tradition usually plays it, by the accusations thrown at Anne, the deliberate plot by Cromwell to throw the scent off him, we are instead pointed straight to the truth.

This brings us back to the introduction; Anne claims it was the book which was her downfall, but was it? Tyndale’s book may have been a contribution, but it could be argued, as Brenton illustrates in his play, that there are other factors which were instrumental to Anne’s ruin; her knowledge of Cromwell’s pilfering and her inability to provide an heir for Henry VIII.

Brenton’s King Henry is not disappointed with the birth of a daughter, but rather reassures an apprehensive Anne, that they are still young:

HENRY: There is time Anne. We are still young.
By the Grace of God this day, is born the Princess
Elizabeth! And Her Majesty the Queen and I are still
young, we are still young!

This perhaps emphasises Henry’s own belief that he truly was still young, or rather demonstrates the denial to believe he was getting old. Later in the play Anne, to Henry’s horror, miscarries a disfigured foetus and as Cromwell orders it to be thrown in the cesspit, Anne’s Wheel of Fortune begins to wobble.

Miranda Raison’s performance of Anne Boleyn is spirited, inspiring and mesmerising. Raison captures a philosophical portrayal of Anne compared to one seen on film. The audience witness an Anne with a desire to reform the church for the greater good, who is vibrant with ideals and drenched in love for a King who she very subtly steers towards her beliefs.

ANNE: Master Tyndale writes that England should be an
independent, sovereign nation state, under God but
no longer under the power of the Pope.
HENRY: Independent…sovereign…state. But what of the
ANNE: God anointed Your Majesty King. Therefore it is His Will
that you be Head of His Church.
HENRY: This is in Scripture?
ANNE: Yes, My Lord. The book exposes the falsity of all prelates
and popes, arguing directly from God’s word.
HENRY: But if I were Head of the Church of England, to whom
would I appeal for my divorce? (Laughs.) To myself?
ANNE: My Sovereign Lord, it is the way to all your desires.

In what can only be described as an unusual depiction of the Anne Boleyn story, it is also extraordinary that the production was at The Globe, a replica of the Shakespearean theatre, mainly reserved for his plays. Staging at this theatre comes right out into the audience giving a sense, in Brenton’s play, that Anne was a high standing Queen. Additionally, the choice to perform it at The Globe gives it a certain gravitas with a suggestion there was something Shakespearean in Anne’s tragedy.

Overall, Brenton has offered a refreshing and innovative characterisation of Anne Boleyn and through John Dove’s direction we have a play that highlights the struggles, turmoil and deceit in the Tudor Court with a subtle resemblance to modern society. Furthermore, what adds to the enjoyment of this production is the portrayal of James I (brilliantly acted by James Garnon) as the gay idiot who, despite believing in witchcraft, ironically presents to the audience a re-materialisation of Anne.

In this play we hear a voice we have not heard before, we see a captivating image of a woman who was born before her time, who strived to make a difference for the better, but who was brought down too suddenly and too severely by those she touched. There are many parallels to the modern day which run through this play, one which attracted me was how, in some way or another, just like James I we are all haunted by Anne Boleyn.

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17 thoughts on “Anne Boleyn at Shakespeare’s Globe – Review”
  1. THE OMISSION OF GEORGE VISCOUNT ROCHFORD Anne’s brother was a huge hole in the play. We know he was the intellectual drive behind her who fed her the radical books.
    Yet again he is dishonoured.
    THE GLOBE theatre burned down in 1613 with Anne Boleyn on stage in Shakespeare’s last play- Henry Viii. They presumably didnt know this and failed to make anything of a dramatic link.

      1. Steady on! Only joking! I too feel sorry for Cromwell, he died an awful death after being such a faithful servant to Henry and he was not guilty of what he was charged with. Even if we see him as responsible for initiating Anne’s downfall he was really only providing Henry VIII with a solution to his problem. Dear me, I’m defending him!

        You know how I feel about George, I agree with you and Rose. He does not get any credit for his role in the Reformation, for his poetry or his rise at court, he just gets maligned and does not have as many people fighting his corner as Anne does. I also feel for Thomas Boleyn and Jane Rochford.

  2. Thanks for the review–the play sounds quite interesting. I didin’t know they were performing Henry VIII when the Globe burned in 1613. Wow, that’s pretty awesome. I would love to see this–do you think it will come to the States?

  3. I must objecy strongly to your bringing in sympathy for T Cromwell who caused the cruel deaths of these lights of the Renaissance.
    He was not ‘doing his ‘ job or even helping the King – he had his own evil designs on the wealth of the monasteries – which Anne wanted to protect and use for Protestant education centres. Cromwell’s crimes caused widespread misery and he deserved a bad end.

    1. We’ve all got a right to our opinion, Rose, and I don’t think anybody deserves such a brutal end. As far as the wealth of the monasteries is concerned, Cromwell was pocketing the money on Henry’s behalf not his own. I am not justifying his actions but I don’t feel that we can judge any of these people because we do not know enough about them and their situation. Cromwell was Henry VIII’s servant, at the end of the day what happened was down to the King.

      1. I will never understand the reaction of saying that Cromwell deserved his bad end becuase he brought about Anne’s bad end. I think that view just makes the person thinking it no better then Cromwell. “An eye for an eye makes the world go blind”. How about less tunnel vision and lets look at the larger picture that each person in Henry’s court had to do what they needed to to survive and that was keep the fickle King happy. Keep up the excellent work, Claire!!! I try not to judge anyone from that time. Not even Henry. At the end of day how are we ever to know what made those men and women do what they did? That is what makes all this so appealing! The mystery.

  4. I saw this play when it launched last year, and much was made about the Globe burning down during a performance of ‘Henry VIII’. I was fortunate enough to attend a ‘meet the cast’ session after the performance and congratulated Miranda Raison on her performance. This play is just one perception of Anne Boleyn as the Protestant heroine – and Tyndale actually rejects Anne, denouncing her as the king’s wh*re and not the true queen. The play undoubtedly smears Cromwell.

  5. and no, I don’t blame Cromwell for ‘stealing the monastries money’, he was doing Henry’s bidding. This idea of Cromwell stashing away money is rather out-dated, surely?

  6. Have to say, I don’t think James Ist is portrayed as a ‘gay idiot’ either, and you can hardly condemn him for believing in witchcraft as the belief was held by many.

  7. Every period in history has parts that are unacceptable to the modern eye, and we look for a scapegoat to blame. We all know Cromwell lived very well from his service to the King, but that is what it was a service, a job. Cromwell may have been the one who suggested to the King what could be done and how to do it, as an advisor, that is what he was. But maybe he was only saying what the King wanted to hear, Henry did not like to be a fault if something was unpopular, hence he needed a scapegoat too, this is why so many of his statesmen lost their heads. But at the end of the day, who ever was the ‘brains’ behind this trail of events involving Anne and the monasteries, none of it could have gone ahead without the King’s approval and permission
    . In my mind Cromwell was no more ambitious, greedy or ‘bad’, than anyone else who was part of the court. He worked relentlessly for the King, he carried out unpopular actions for the King, and he cut down people for the King. Then the King cut him down, but he got some one else to do it for him, again! These times were brutal, and life was cheap…

  8. I saw this play last year and although I throughly enjoyed it I don’t believe the theory about Cromwell causing Anne’s downfall. Cromwell only joined the conservative faction when it was obvious that the King had decided to get rid of Anne. Jane was on her way in and he could not afford to alienate her especially as he was a reformer. Anne was not a threat to Cromwell as she was already out of favour with Henry. Henry was the one that was keen to dissolve the relgious houses. Cromwell is on record as advising the King that it would be more productive to keep them open and receive a yearly tribute. (Not money taken from the poor but the money that before would have been paid to Rome). He also spent several years trying to reform them by placing envangelicals in key positions who tried to make the study of scripture more central to monastic life. I also find it hard to believe that if Cromwell had been taking bribes or stealing money that Henry would know nothing about it whilst the less well connected Queen would be in the know.

  9. Thank you to all who have commented on this review. It was written from the point I saw it from, and as with most things peoples’ opinions differ. I focused mainly on how Brenton had portrayed Anne Boleyn, as Anne is the focus of my own work. I should maybe have included a little more about the other characters, especially Jane Rochford as Brenton perceived her as quite honourable to Anne, compared to what I have read during my research and how television represents her. However, in this play Brenton, in my opinion, has moved away from the traditional story and run of characters to create his own perception and this is what makes it so refreshing.
    Perhaps in my writing I seem quite biased regarding Cromwell, but it was how his character came across to me in the performance; a very calculated man, not much different from some of our modern day politicians. Nevertheless, as has been identified in some of the comments, people have differing views and there is no way of knowing which is right or which is wrong in every instance.
    With regards to the comment about James I and my rather colloquial term of ‘gay idiot’, again it was how he was presented to me. Wearing Anne’s coronation dress and dancing around in a very effeminate manner seemed rather idiotic to me compared to what Henry VIII was all about. However, I recognize that James was not idiotic in his religious reasoning; otherwise we would not have James I Bible. In addition, I wasn’t condemning him for believing in witchcraft I just found it ironic that he did, but yet he re-created Anne from the dead.
    Thank you again for all the comments, especially regarding the burning of the original Globe during a performance of Henry VIII in 1613. I am grateful for all your opinions and thoughts, especially when my lack of knowledge in some areas are recognized and rectified. And thank you once again Claire, for posting the review on your website.

  10. I just came back from London (I’m from Brazil) and as an actress I had to see a play at Shakespeare’s Globe. When I saw that Anne Boleyn was on, I thought ‘I’m sooooo lucky’ and couldn’t stop talking about it until the day I got there.

    Maybe cause of that, all the excitement to see THAT play on THAT place, I didn’t like it so much. I was expecting the best play in my whole life and I thought I’d cry rivers! Don’t get me wrong, I did cry a little bit in the end, but I thought it’d be worst!

    The play (I bought the book) is amazing, really well written, dramatic and funny at the same time, but it made me feel that something was missing, maybe in the historical part. Two of my friends that don’t know much about Anne besides what I keep telling them, were a little confused. They kept asking me questions during the play about the true history! ‘Was Anne’s brother like that?’ ‘Does she really got that Bible like that?’ ‘Her sister-in-law was like that?’ ‘What about Elizabeth?’ … Maybe if I wasn’t Anne’s fan we all would had enjoyed it more. For me, the play, as you said, shows the strong and forward side of Anne but in the religious way. I don’t know if I can make myself clear, but I missed Anne! I missed other aspects of her besides her faith, I missed her as a woman, as a wife and as a mother.

    The guys that play James I and George are great!!! AWESOME actors! The girl that plays Anne too, but when I saw her blonde hair and blue eyes I felt like crying a little bit!
    Anyway… as an actress I’d love to be in a play like that, it’s interesting, full of great and complexed characters but as Anne’s fan I thought that it could be better.

    Maybe I’m just another person hunted by Anne that wishes to know everything and seeks for it in every single thing that has to do with her.

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