Page last updated at 09:13 GMT, Friday, 14 May 2010 10:13 UK

Why Shakespeare's Henry VIII remains a rarity

Dominic Rowan
Dominic Rowan in rehearsals for Henry VIII at Shakespeare's Globe

By Tim Masters
Entertainment correspondent, BBC News

Shakespeare's Henry VIII is being resurrected at the Globe, nearly 400 years after it was responsible for burning down the original theatre.

A cannon fired as a special effect during a production of Henry VIII in June 1613 ignited the Globe's thatched roof and razed the playhouse to the ground.

This weekend a new version of the play opens at Shakespeare's Globe in London - with a 21st Century sprinkler system in place to combat any similar mishaps.

Miranda Raison
Spooks star Miranda Raison plays Ann Bullen (rehearsal shot)

Corridors of power

But why is Henry VIII so rarely performed in the modern day?

"The play has always been jinxed because of the fire," says Professor Grace Ioppolo, who lectures in Shakespeare at the University of Reading.

She explains that the major problem is one of genre.

"Henry VIII is uneven - we don't know what genre it is. People walk into the theatre and ask if they are seeing a history play, a romance or a tragedy?

"There are no battle scenes, one-on-one duels, or confusion and noise - this is a history play about celebration."

Mark Rosenblatt, the director of the new version at Shakespeare's Globe, draws a modern parallel.

"It reminds me a little bit of The Thick of It," he says during a break in rehearsals.

"The play is set in the court of Henry, it's the only history play that has no battles in it. All the battles take place on the corridors of power."

Henry VIII tells the story of the power struggle in the Tudor Court between its nobles and the ambitious Cardinal Wolsey, the king's first minister.

The main characters include Queen Katherine (of Aragon) and Ann Bullen (Boleyn). Henry VIII is played by Dominic Rowan, seen recently in The Misanthrope in the West End.

"You get quite a lot of sharp-tongued cynical political manoeuvring ," says Rosenblatt, "so it does remind you in some ways of modern politics - especially in the hands of Cardinal Wolsey who has some brilliant speeches - you can imagine Peter Mandelson saying some of those things."

'Small explosion'

Director Mark Rosenblatt
Director Mark Rosenblatt says the play is a "political thriller"

As well as the issue of genre, says Professor Ioppolo, is the problem of the play's authorship.

It is thought many scenes were written by the playwright John Fletcher.

"Shakespeare was well into retirement - we think he retired around 1611 - and this was written in 1613. It's most likely his last play, but we don't know," says Professor Ioppolo.

"The scenes that are written by Fletcher are creaky. You can see in some scenes it doesn't have that Shakespearean touch that we are used to."

Or as Rosenblatt puts it: "There are certain scenes when you suddenly think 'this is Shakespeare' - the writing is richer.

"You feel you are in the hands of a truly great writer as opposed to a very fine writer."

But Henry VIII nevertheless has a reputation for visual spectacle.

The cannon blast in Act I Scene IV remains intact in the 2010 version.

Rosenblatt admits it was a talking point during the first technical rehearsal.

"We had a small explosion go off in the roof, and I looked up and saw smoke coming out of the bell-tower.

"We all stopped, and said it wouldn't happen again as there's a great sprinkler system here!"

Stage oddity

Professor Ioppolo, who saw Henry VIII when it was staged by the RSC in the 1990s, compares the play to a painting.

"You have all these processions - highly-visualised staged scenes which were very much the vogue in 1613."

She points out that most of Shakespeare's history plays were written at the beginning of his career.

"The vogue for them was the 1590s. We don't know why in 1613 they are suddenly writing a history play. The other plays being done in the period are all tragedies or city comedies.

"It's really an elusive little play because we don't know what it represents. It's wonderful, it's an oddity."

Henry VIII opens at Shakespeare's Globe in London on 15 May and runs until 21 August.

Print Sponsor

Henry VIII wine fountain unveiled
29 Apr 10 |  London
Henry VIII returns to The Globe
15 Feb 10 |  Arts & Culture
Henry VIII's love nest for sale
20 Nov 09 |  Kent


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific