No heads will roll at the Folger this month. Ian Merrill Peakes strikes a brooding tone on the promotional art for Henry VIII, with an unbuttoned tunic and a smoldering stare to rival the one summoned by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. But unlike that actor’s fiery exploits on Showtime’s drama “The Tudors”, Peakes must act his regal role within the confines of a script that, although written by our greatest playwright, isn’t actually that great. It’s remarkably unremarkable, in fact, steering clear of Henry’s gruesome matrimonial misadventures in favor of the petty, legislative tiffs of various dukes and lords.
With such an earth-shaking body of work under his belt, how did Shakespeare – and his probable penmate John Fletcher – manage to make the life of a homicidal king feel procedural? Sure, it’s shallow to expect a 400-year-old script to bear the kind of pulpy fruit we collect from cable television. But ol’ Shakes is a master thinker on the terrible, wonderful ways in which carnal impulses feed, inspire, and undermine our rational and political lives. Our Majesty was such a rolling stone that it’s a surprise to see him gather some dust.
It’s true that one might say “Very little happens” with regard to many of our greatest plays. But where Hamlet, for example, was paralyzed among devastating options, Henry’s choices seem idle minded. He contemplates the future of his flickering marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Naomi Jacobson), arbitrates some scuffling between her and Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Cochrane), and ogles the sweet but callow Anne Boleyn (Karen Peakes, who is also Ian Merrill’s wife). The acting is good across the board – there’s nary a moment that’s less than informed and precise – but sometimes even a strong cast can’t make a meandering plot run any straighter. The result is that product always so perplexing to the critic: an admirable and worthy production of a subpar play.
But though Folger’s production, under the smart and skilled direction of Robert Richmond, doesn’t take up the most riveting of texts, it does a graceful job of crafting a living, breathing environment, shunning pomposity and spectacle in favor of a simplified design – Tony Cisek’s beautiful set is almost entirely metal, the ornate surfaces perforated with a cloverleaf pattern – and an intimate style that brings our focus in tight on the point-blank humors and doubts of appealing, lucid characters. This is in mainly due to the spry efforts of Louis Butelli, who – in Richmond’s largest innovation – plays the brand-new role of one Will Sommers, Henry’s real-life court jester.
As Sommers, Butelli takes on the majority of the supporting roles, ducking in and out of coats, robes, dresses and wigs and appearing onstage again in the nick of time. It’s a pretty fool-proof plan – directors have long relied on that strange phenomenon in which perfectly sane, grown adults will laugh like toddlers when brought into a well-played game of actor peek-a-boo – but Richmond takes a deeper view of Sommers’ role here, and moulds his narrative duties into the story of a civil servant who has a chance to give his fellow common-folk (that would be us, the audience) a glimpse into the private lives of royals, as seen from the keen-eyed corners of the palace he so frequently occupies.
This fresh context invites larger questions about the audience’s role, since by activating an outside-in perspective we may begin to see ourselves as members of a sort of public court. For this, the dips that Sommers takes into the front rows of the house feel justified. The team has also added a set of removable steps about halfway back in the house, on which subjects stand to address the king at court, much in the manner of an audience talkback at a lecture. But Sommers isn’t just the onlooker, he’s the puppet master himself, seen in the Prologue with a box of dolls resembling the characters and then, to start the action of Act One, Scene One, blowing breath across his open palm like he’s casting a magic spell. Through loving little moments like this, the dust starts to fall away.
Do they use the gimmick too much? Probably. The plea from the incarcerated Duke of Buckingham (Stephen Patrick) acquires a nice sense of civic urgency when delivered in the house, and the speeches Wolsey gives upon being unmasked as a swindler earn their verbiage by avoiding bluster and embracing charm and candor. But what is Henry himself doing down in the audience for his soliloquies? For a man so unwilling to share his secrets, this seems awfully generous of him. Here, the blocking diffuses some important power dynamics, and although it’s not a crime to portray the king as a pretty okay guy, it doesn’t help to heighten the stakes.
This insistent fostering of intimacy pays dividends, though. In a welcome turn of events, every actor in the show seems positively allergic to grandstanding – certainly there are plenty of opportunities to play it as such – and they’ve been doing hard work to trust speaking at low-middle volume. Peakes, especially, is adept at capturing the natural humor of how we improvise all our conversations as we go along, even when the situation is serious. For a historical figure we usually examine with cautious eyes – we’re talking multiple beheaded wives, mind you – it’s compelling to think that perhaps he was just one of us, trying to make it through to the end with a happy bedmate and a healthy heir. A bit out of form for the time, perhaps. But for a modern audience, such a notion may be just what Henry VIII needs – a shot of young hope at the heart of old troubles.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Robert Richmond
Produced by Folger Theatre
Reviewed by Hunter Styles