By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 20, 2010; C01
As Folger Theatre continually reminds us in its sturdily acted, becomingly visual "Henry VIII," history is in the imaginative mind of the conjurer -- in this case, William Shakespeare. To drive home the point, director Robert Richmond does some conjuring of his own, inventing for this work a new character, Will Sommers, who hovers on the fringe of the story, shaping its development to his personal taste.
The magical Will S. (get it?) is a convenient if sometimes intrusive device: Portrayed by Louis Butelli, Will sits from time to time on the lip of the stage with hand-puppet versions of the royal characters, who soon enough will be enacting the puppet master's whims. We need less of this Will (based, in fact, on Henry VIII's jester) than we're supplied. Yet the cast manages to coexist capably with the conceit, confidently propelling us through the drama of lords, priests and queens, in ascendance and decline, in Henry's intrigue-ridden court.
Little about "Henry VIII" qualifies as essential Shakespeare; its authorship has been debated for centuries, with many scholars concluding that chunks of it were composed by John Fletcher. Given its reliance on lavish ceremony and kid-gloves treatment of Henry, the infrequently performed play seems transparently, expediently political, an example of early 17th-century spin.
One imagines that writing about this king -- who broke with Rome over his desire to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, mother of Shakespeare's great patron Elizabeth I -- was a delicate assignment. How sensitive is apparent in the almost laughably effusive final scene, set at Elizabeth's resplendent christening, during which Archbishop Cranmer extols her birth as a virtual miracle that will confer upon the kingdom "a thousand thousand blessings." No candidate's commercial casts a rosier glow.
To make this all a bit more digestible for a modern palate, the director has trimmed away some of the pomp, as well as the stodgier verbiage of "Henry VIII," and the reductions make for a more playable evening. It helps a lot that he has enlisted the dependably dynamic Ian Merrill Peakes as Henry, and that Naomi Jacobson is recruited for a notably sympathetic treatment of Katherine. To illustrate how wronged she is, Richmond gives Henry and Karen Peakes's fetching Anne a few stolen moments in which the king demonstrates that his passions are not solely consumed by the crown.
But the portrayal that comes across as the most poignantly effective is that of Anthony Cochrane as Henry's overreaching right-hand man, Cardinal Wolsey. In a superlatively modulated performance, Cochrane shows us the vanity of a man who at first cunningly consolidates his power at court, only to squander it in an arrogant disregard for the fickleness of the king and the relentlessness of his enemies.
A hint of the more supple tragedy that might have been written is illuminated in Wolsey's valedictory speech, in which he alludes to the wretchedness of any man who survives at the whim of a prince. Brought to his knees, with the evidence of Wolsey's duplicitous intentions scattered in letters on the floor, Cochrane provides, in the vein of Richard II, a moving account of a titan cut down to admirably human ruefulness.
Though Richmond stints on pageantry -- the sprawling tapestry is embodied by a mere 11 actors -- this "Henry VIII" is not without its compelling spectacle. Tony Cisek's excellent set consists of wood painted to look like ornate grillwork; the decorative grating reinforces the idea of a palace laden with secrets and eavesdroppers with the means to hear them. A quintet of terrific actors, made up of Lawrence Redmond, Todd Scofield, Stephen Patrick Martin, Michael Glenn and Nathan James Bennett, plays all the scheming dukes and earls. Their continual emerging from the shadows of Klyph Stanford's fine lighting design contributes to a sense of a court in which everyone except the man at the top is vulnerable to gossip and backstabbing.
An even richer visual element materializes each time an actor enters in one of Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long's sumptuous cloaks and gowns. The theatricality of Katherine's piety, Anne's glamour and Henry's swagger is all reflected in the gilt-edged wardrobe. The director does the audience a favor staging so much of the production in the wide aisle that divides the ground-level seating. It becomes a runway for the splendors of Tudor finery.
Butelli has the toughest job, as he not only has to serve the director's iffiest concepts, but also play several supporting roles -- among them, an old lady friend of Anne's -- that draw a bit too much attention to themselves. (For even foggier reasons, the character of Henry's daughter Mary, played by singer Megan Steigerwald, has been created for this version, too.) Still, when you tabulate the net effect of all of Richmond's additions and subtractions, the tally leaves you contentedly in the plus column.
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Robert Richmond. Composer and sound, Anthony Cochrane; resident dramaturge, Michele Osherow. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Through Nov. 21 at Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Visit http://www.folger.edu/theatre or call 202-544-7077.