Hanging Out With Henry VIII Live! (For Now): The Mirror and The Light
We begin in prison with Thomas Cromwell as he awaits his fate. He is haunted by ghosts (Cardinal Wolsey — dancing, his father — haranguing or beerily cheering him on) and reviews how he got to this sorry state.
Henry VIII (as played by Nathaniel Parker) could be the total villain of the piece, but he show real vulnerability in his loss at Jane Seymour’s death (how could this happen to him — he has done everything right, he is innocent, what does it all mean?) The events of state are deeply personal as the King is the body politic. Cromwell is also a rule breaker — he wears the wrong colours and clothes socially and yet enjoys the King’s favour (and protection, for now)….
None of the famous names in this Tudor cast are quite what we think. Jane Seymour is sharper and shrewder than we give the seemingly docile, obedient wife credit for; Anna of Cleves is not ugly, merely unwanted by Henry who feels his emotional repulsion at being forced to do his duty and do what he must for the good of the realm, rather than feeling emotional connection. There is a funny scene where Henry disguises himself and charges into Anna’s room expecting hero worship and recognition — instead she asks ‘where is the King?’ Henry is not what he was, limping about, nor is he as innocent as he wants us to think he is, having dispatched one inconvenient wife to marry another.
Cromwell continues to rise and rise, as do his sons — where will it all end? The class and snobbery clashes between Seymour and Suffolk and Cromwell are fantastic, with Suffolk being nice but dim. We see how Henry is surrounded by squabbling nobles, whereas Henry VII and Elizabeth play them off against each other. When the Pilgrimage of Grace rises against the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry is keen to protect his self-made, self-appointed man in his decision making; but for how much longer once he is married to a woman whom he feels nothing? (Although there is nothing wrong with the lady in herself).
Everyone maneuvers politically around the King, moving from joyful masked dancing and celebratory merry making to demons tormenting Cromwell in prison, and the prison bars hang cage like overhead, ominously. Everything is lit by candlelight (or so it seems)! Princess Mary is strongly played as a religious martyr and Cromwell tries to make things better by writing a letter in her name flattering Henry’s ego and desire for control and pre-eminence. Cromwell is accused of being in love with her and socially climbing. There is a funny moment when he negotiates a marriage for his son, but the bride is confused about who she’s truly marrying….
The thing missing from this play is real, life impacting faith — the Cardinal’s ghost seems more Enlightenment than Tudor, nor do we get a sense of the horror people at the time had of Civil War, having just come out of the War of the Roses; of people fighting against themselves. Everything is see in terms of politics which isn’t quite right as faith was both personal and political at the time — souls and where you went, how you lived were vital, character mattered (something we have lost today — actions and person can be separate). Princess Mary wants to mimic her mother in her devotion and not encourage her father in ‘heresy’ and misguided self-importance; the Pilgrimage of Grace shows how desperate people are as they think their ruler is in sin. It matters! Here it seems more of a given, even though Cromwell is working out of Protestant fuelled motives to get the gospel into the hands of ordinary, reading people. Even Henry VIII was pushed by faith — had he really done the wrong thing in marrying his brother’s wife? Had he damaged his nation by his choice? And offended God in his error? Was his second wife pushing too much of the ‘wrong’ kind of faith? Faith in this play equals cynicism and fear, which isn’t quite true as people also gained lots of strength and comfort from it, otherwise how could they go to their deaths? Or keep going in terrible times of war, famine and loss? Or serve others? It really meant something and the play just doesn’t show that….
Henry’s last gasp character swing at the end is wily and a masterclass in civilised cruelty as he abandons Cromwell to make his own way — to choose Katherine Howard as his next, preferred wife.
We see Cromwell’s execution; he is abandoned (as he wishes) by his son and his wife, whilst his adopted sons fight for him. I really enjoyed Christoph’s interjections. There is a sub-pot about Wolsey’s daughter in a Protestant convent who wants none of Cromwell’s help and this is a thread which goes through the play — who Cromwell can help, and who he can’t, and at the end, who can or will help him?