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Anne Boleyn

Festival Theatre, Edinburgh
5 stars
Thank God for writers like Howard Brenton. Because, as English Touring 
Theatre’s revival of Brenton’s mighty history play for Shakespeare’s 
Globe testifies to, there are few artists who could combine political 
intrigue, religion, tragedy and high comedy to make a twenty-first 
century epic to die for. The audacious sweep of John Dove’s production 
helps, from the moment the period-frocked actors wander into the 
auditorium to engage with an audience perhaps expecting a heritage 
industry view of Henry VIII’s second and seemingly most heroic, not to 
say epoch-changing, spouse.

From Anne’s double-bluffing opening address, however, things couldn’t 
be more different, as the action dovetails between timelines framed 
around James I’s private investigations into Anne’s rise and fall en 
route to authorising a new bible. As Anne navigates her way through the 
uneasy coalition between church and state, she not only wraps David 
Sturzaker’s Henry around her little finger, but becomes a pin-up girl 
for the spies who send her to her death.

With every florid speech undercut by some contemporary-sounding comic 
punchline, Brenton, Dove and their cast of nineteen actors and three 
musicians have made something that’s both hugely topical and deadly 
serious, yet also remains great fun. Where Jo Herbert’s Anne is a 
thoroughly modern woman, intelligent, independent and a natural rebel, 
James Garnon’s James is an outrageous figure, cross-dressing like a 
Scots Eddie Izzard doing The Rocky Horror Show with Tourette’s. Beyond 
such frolics, Anne’s real tragedy here is that, for all her 
revolutionary zeal, it was misogyny and the fact that she didn’t sire a 
male heir that did for her in the end in this major work for difficult 

The Herald, May 10th 2012



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