Magic of Anne Boleyn

David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert
David Sturzaker and Jo Herbert
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Anne Boleyn, Theatre Royal, Brighton, until April 7.

ENGLISH Touring Theatre’s production of Anne Boleyn processed from London’s Globe Theatre to Brighton this week, trailing stardust – and unanimously flattering reviews – in its wake.

The Theatre Royal just can’t go wrong at present. We’ve had glitzy musicals, Russian ballet, Italian opera – and now the once-in-a-lifetime to watch a team of eye-wateringly professional classical actors work their magic on an appreciative audience.

Playwright Howard Brenton’s witty yet moving take on the familiar story ripped the veil from our preconceptions of Anne – was she sexy, waspish minx (BBC’s ‘The Tudors,’) ‘a brutal and effective politician’ (David Starkey) or a ‘schemer and poseur?’ (Antonia Fraser.)

Or was she the true founder of the Church of England and the woman who assured a Protestant bridgehead in Catholic England?

Direct from the Globe, John Dove’s direction seemed to convert Brighton’s proscenium stage into a theatre in the round. At the opening, costumed players mingled with the audience and addressed them directly and disconcertingly as the play progressed.

Although the tale of how an attractive and ambitious woman gets to the centre of a dangerous maze of male power is our authorised version, if you like, of Anne’s story, Brenton’s take on the tale gives her a new dimension. She was religious, she was a Protestant, a reformer and an admirer of William Tyndale whose egalitarian translation of the Bible brought it within the reach of ordinary English people. He was burnt alive for it in the year Anne was executed.

I’m making this sound like a complicated and out-of-reach historical lecture but it really wasn’t. The play was enjoyable at every level with vivid staging, pithy, modern dialogue and acting beyond reproach. A starkly elegant set did duty as the palace garden, the Tower, the hunting field and Henry’s rooms. And by golly, even in the fifth row of the circle we were fanning ourselves at the blazing lust between the monarch (authoratitively swaggered by Shakespearean perfectionist David Sturzaker) and beautiful Anne (played with assurance by Jo Herbert.)

For me one of the most stratospheric performances was given by Julius D’Silva. His sinister Thomas Cromwell commanded the space around him with all the menace of a Russian oligarch’s personal bodyguard.

Plaudits too to James Garnon who brought King James I to life combining a kind of physical Tourettes with the razor-sharp mind of the first Stuart monarch.

Ethereal music performed by a trio playing high on a mezzanine balcony helped authenticate the period.

The Theatre Royal is really becoming a bit of a centre of excellence for historical productions and I put this on the level with the Propeller Company’s astonishing winter delivery of Henry V.

A lovely, thought-provoking, sincere, funny, sexy and witty play.

Susan King