Sexism, and the responses women make to it, do not seem to have evolved in any simple or linear way, if Anne of the Thousand Days is any indication. Written in 1948 by Maxwell Anderson, some of its depictions of the relationship between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII are shockingly modern – you almost want to think that someone at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has inserted new lines. Some of it is backwards in a 1940s way, some of it in a 1530s way, and some of it remains all-too relevant in this political season of ‘nasty women.’
Under director Kasi Campbell, CSC has leaned in hard to this feminist take on a pseudo-feminist interpretation of a woman who was possibly more powerful in her own time than any of us may appreciate. The entire design team is women, and the ensemble does not shy away from either the outright, vicious sexism of Henry (Ron Heneghan) or the uncompromising daring of Anne (Lizzi Albert).
In Anderson’s telling, Anne is victimized early on by Henry, who forces away her true-love match with Lord Percy (Gerrad Alex Taylor), a caring and gentle contrast to the spoiled king. After that, she spends her remaining days navigating the king’s unrelenting obsession with her towards her own ends. There’s a kind of unrepentant nihilism in Albert’s portrayal, as if she has decided, once genuine Percy is gone, that she may as well throw herself full bore into the social-climbing, backstabbing world of the English court. She fights cleverly, boldly, and expressively for everything she can get; if Henry must have her, then she must be his queen; if he must fall out of obsession with her later, then their daughter Elizabeth must remain his heir; and so forth.
It’s unfortunate, then, and rather outside of Campbell’s control, that Anderson’s play – despite all the great raw material it gives Albert in its verses – is more interested in Henry than the title character. Henry gets the great, rolling speeches and the tortured decisions onstage, while Anne mostly responds, and the only wrestling she does with morals and meanings comes on the last day of her life. While Henry is fascinating as written, and Heneghan makes him electrifyingly human, fragile, and larger-than-life, it’s a shame that the balance couldn’t be flipped. Perhaps that deficiency can be attributed mostly to the 1940s’ sexism, when Anderson seemed most concerned with how a powerful man deals with a strong woman.
The script – a mix of blank verse and prose, with lots of intervals for songs (many originally composed by Henry himself five hundred years ago) – is ably delivered by the spot-on ensemble. To name but two, Gregory Burgess makes his Cardinal Wolsey a fascinating portrait of self-aware venality; and Barbara Madison Hauck provides Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister and Henry’s discarded mistress, a layer of resignation and longing in her brief scenes.
Anne of the Thousand Days
closes November 13, 2016
Details and tickets
As well, a trio of musicians (Matthew Ancarrow, James Jager, Kate Forton) do lovely work not only with their varied comic and dramatic scenes, but also with the arrangements and compositions of sound designer Sarah O’Halloran and music director Grace Srinivasan; in CSC tradition, they’re joined onstage by other members of the ensemble pre-show and during intermission for more music.
The stage Campbell and her designers set for this tale gives the actors marvelous support– set designer Kathryn Kawecki hangs a black chandelier over the stage like the Sword of Damocles, and peppers the wooden backdrop with patterns that make it resemble a musical score, perhaps, or a stained glass window. Costume designer Kristina Lambdin does more than just pick out period finery from the costume stock – she enlivens the story with bold color choices, giving extra weight to the proceedings (surely Albert must have been inspired by her one very, very blood-red dress).
Anderson ultimately portrays the relationship between Henry and Anne as a tarnished love story, and this is the part that is the hardest to sell given how fully the production gives voice to Henry’s wandering passions and Anne’s brave opposition. The Richard Burton film version makes that romance more believable, but we should probably be disinclined to interpret the story that way these days. Therefore, it’s hard to imagine a better possible tackling of this complicated, but flawed, play than this one.
Anne of the Thousand Days by Maxwell Anderson . Directed by Kasi Campbell . Featuring Lizzi Albert, Ron Heneghan, Gregory Burgess, Lyle Blake Smythers, Matthew Ancarrow, James Jager, Keith Snipes, Gerrad Alex Taylor, Molly Moores, Barbara Madison Hauck, E. Martin Ealy, Kate Forton, Elana Michelle, Yury Lomakin . Dramaturg: Marshall B. Garrett . Costume Designer: Kristina Lambdin . Set Designer: Kathryn Kawecki . Lighting Designer: Katie McCreary . Sound Designer and Composer: Sarah O’Halloran . Hair, Wig, and Makeup Designer: Haley Raines Young . Dramaturg and Period Style Coach: Laura Rocklyn . Props Designer: Mollie Singer . Music Director: Grace Srinivasan . Dance Choreographer: Nellie K. Glover . Stage Manager: Lauren Engler . Produced by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company . Reviewed by Brett Steven Abelman.