Period music greets loyal subjects as they enter the Friends Meeting House to attend Divorced, Beheaded, Survived: An Audience with King Henry VIII, written and directed by John White, who also performs it under the name of Jack Abbot, for Select Society, as part of the Brighton Fringe.
Remarkably like the figure in Holbein’s flattering portrait
A chair of red velvet surmounted by a crown occupies a central position on a palatial rug and a fanfare announces His Majesty’s grand entrance. Appearing a little older, larger and with beard less finely trimmed, he looks remarkably like the figure in Holbein’s flattering portrait, especially as the lavish, bejewelled robes also match. Probably with the gout playing up and certainly with old wounds causing discomfort he uses a walking stick to steady his gait.
The story that follows takes a chronological journey through the king’s life as one wife after another fails to deliver the male heir he desperately seeks. While Jane Seymour gave birth to Edward, she died within two weeks and, given the high mortality rates of the period, one son was still insufficient to guarantee the male lineage. Henry always wanted a woman by his side, and so the themed story continues. This format provides for something of a tick-box narrative that is predictable, though not without some insights into His Majesty’s thinking.
Primarily the focus is on the performance. Using a pseudo-Tudor style of language makes him sound sufficiently pompous and he creates an imposing figure in the flamboyant robes, though he still seems oddly out of place in the vast space of the venue. On a bright summer’s afternoon with light pouring through the large windows on both sides, creating any sense of atmosphere or intimacy was impossible, especially with only a handful of people in the audience. A small stage area that could use varied lighting would prove advantageous.
However, it is the almost unrelenting bellowing of lines that grates after only a short time. His authority is already established by virtue of his office and there really is no need for ear-splitting declamations to make him appear important. Although aiming for historical accuracy, the high pitched squealing at the ends of sentences is becomes equally irritating. The few moments of quieter reflection he has when seated ponderously on his throne come over far better than all the ranting.
There is much potential in the idea behind the play, but currently it needs to be rethought to provide more subtlety of interpretation, a more nuanced style of delivery and a storyline that contains a least a few surprises to make it a less predictable tale.