By William Shakespeare
Directed by Barbara Gaines
Produced by Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Shakespeare’s late history play at CST is as lyrically rich as any bel canto opera.
It wasn’t until 1623—when Condell and Heminges initially compiled the works of the late William Shakespeare into the First Folio—that Henry VIII was forcibly classified a “history play.” Prior to that, it’d been known by its alternative title of All is True, an evocatively abstruse title even for Shakespeare. My initial inclination is to read the title All is True as something of a tautology, in tone and tenor approximating the idea that “all that is, is.” This sort of comic acquiescence to the nature of the world seems appropriate to the mood of Shakespeare’s late romances, to which Henry VIII is as close in style and substance as it is even to the more robust political dramas of the other “Henry” plays. Thus of all the histories, Henry VIII comes closest, one could argue, to the full-fledged pathos and musicality of a grand opera or ballet.
And even in Barbara Gaines’s wryly psychological new mounting, now gracing the stages of Chicago Shakespeare, history itself seems set to the tune of a courtly courante, proceeding with a definite lightness of step and airy acquiescence to the sizable pathos of its victims. Draping itself in nothing so heavy as lush fabrics of lavender and crimson, this gorgeous new production manages to be an intensely well-observed psychodrama on the nature of political ambition while never losing its underlying operatic registers.
Nerds who eagerly lapped up the lavish historical fictions of British author Hilary Mantel will be relatively familiar with the multiple plots contained in Henry VIII. With the rhythmic pull of waves cresting and crashing against the beach, the play follows the successive rise and falls of the noble Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham (Andrew Long), the scheming and ambitious Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (Scott Jaeck), and the Spanish Queen Katherine of Aragon (Ora Jones), famously cast out by her husband to make way for the virile young Anne Boleyn (Christina Pumariega).
However, as an effective piece of Tudor propaganda, everything looks eagerly forward to the birth of the future Queen Elizabeth I, an event marked in Henry VIII by Archbishop Cranmer’s famous last speech prophesying the glory of her reign. The whole drama leans toward (and is almost pulled by) this moment, though to Gaines’s credit, her staging never quite accepts it at face value.
Cutting much of the text’s expository fat, this sleek and well-paced production is narrated with a winking coyness by the stately Duke of Suffolk (played by the wonderful Mike Nussbaum), thus shifting focus to the play’s meaty political psychodrama. Whereas King Henry of the text looms safeguarded above the frays at court, Gaines eagerly brings him back down to earth, and Gregory Wooddell’s rivetingly hot-blooded performance evinces a king at once helplessly at the whim of his own carnal desires even as he strives to be just and good.
Thus we’re never exactly sure if the events of Henry VIII are actually guided by Providence or if, perhaps more cynically, the allure of Providence is just a good PR opportunity to mask the sins and violence underlying political power. Of course, this central ambiguity is also what makes Gaines’s production so teasingly suggestive and rich.
That, and of course the arias, with which no opera would be complete. Like centerpieces at a banquet, Henry VIII is peppered with some of Shakespeare’s most intensely pathos-laden adieus, delivered by history’s unfortunate losers. Scott Jaeck, for example, who (along with the exquisite David Darlow as Cardinal Campeius) delivers throughout Henry VIII a menacingly violent performance, becomes suddenly after the moment of his fall stirringly empathetic. And Ora Jones—giving what may be the production’s most beautifully compelling performance—presents us with a Katherine strong and determined enough to fight for her husband, though at last unable to withstand the collective pressures of a changing world. And indeed, at the moment of Katherine’s death, Jones’s final tearful goodbye virtually sings.
Thus as full to the brim with sex and political intrigue as anything one may find in Wolf Hall or Bringing Up the Bodies, Chicago Shakespeare’s ravishing new production of Henry VIII is nothing less than a regal triumph.
Reviewed by Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Wednesday, May 8th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Henry VIII runs until June 16th, 2013. Chicago Shakespeare Theater is located at 800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611. For tickets call (312) 595-5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com. Check out their Theater in Chicago listing at https://www.theatreinchicago.com/henry-viii/6209/.