One of the most complex, dramatic, and consequential periods of English history is the reign of Henry VIII (1509-1547) – complete with six wives, Reformation arriving as the Church of England is born, and the king assumes supreme power. It has been the subject of a multitude of books, plays, films, and such TV series as the recent “Wolf Hall.”
Marin Theater currently presents the West Coast premiere of Howard Brenton’s historical drama, “Anne Boleyn,” in a brilliant production of a fascinating approach to the subject. The show in Marin is running through May 8, but there is an unprecedented opportunity to see it in the Gothic setting (and Gothic-horror acoustics) of San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral at noon on April 30.
Directed by Jasson Minadakis on Nina Ball’s amazingly grand set (it takes talent and dedication for small companies to outdo big-budget theaters), “Anne Boleyn” opens with a bang as Liz Sklar in the title role shows the audience the severed head of Henry second and most influential wife.
Brenton’s script is masterful in providing detailed information about the leading figures of the period, their causes and conflicts – all without turning into either an academic lecture or something resembling a “Tudors and Stuarts for Dummies.” The play is vibrantly alive, curiously meaningful with minimal anachronisms. (Proviso: did women in Henry’s court wear smart pumps from Nordstrom?)
In addition to the famous characters – Henry VIII (a grand performance by Craig Marker, who is even more striking as James I), Cromwell (David Ari), Cardinal Wolsey (Charles Shaw Robinson, double-cast as Robert Cecil), Jane Seymour (Lauren Spencer) – the play highlights the relatively little known importance of William Tyndale (portrayed with memorable subtlety by Dan Hiatt).
Boleyn and Tyndale are in the center of the main story of what is a whole cluster of historical and personal intrigues and struggles. Tyndale was a scholar who had a leading role in Protestant reform; his translation of the Bible into English became a major part of the 1611 King James Bible.
The bane of inconsistent accents in American theater in the performance of English plays does not spare Marin Theater: all initial English accents slowly disappear during the performance. Even Marker, whose Scottish brogue is excellent when he is transformed from Henry to James (to explain what happened during the past decades leading to his reign), sounds “American” when he becomes Henry again. I’ve been wondering for years if it were the best not to attempt “sounding authentic” at all.
Still, against all that is good at Marin Theater, this is a minor item, perhaps just one man’s preoccupation.