Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ashland Theater Note: Henry VIII

Well, I've completed the set: 55 years ago this summer, I saw my first live Shakespeare performance: a presentation of Much Ado About Nothing with the late Ellis Rabb as Benedick. Last night at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival, I saw Henry VIII. My friend Hal said: will you be having some sort of a celebration? Well, no, actually, I had forgotten I hadn't completed the set a few years before. A few years ago, when Ashland did Two Noble Kinsmen, I figured I could count that as the last, forgetting Henry VIII. This was a palpable error: for my money, there's a lot more of Shakespeare in Henry than there is in 2NK.

But two thoughts about Henry VIII. One, you can see why it is not performed more often. And two, Shakespeare may sometimes have written mediocre plays, but he never wrote an uninteresting play--never wrote a play that wasn't worth watching, that you couldn't chew on, couldn't get something out of.

Henry VIII confirms the point. You probably do have to love Shakespeare to have the patience to stick it out with this play: it's pretty static,. with a lot more pageantry than dynamism. Still it some fine characterization (Catherine of Aragon; Cardinal Wolsey) and a few bits of really dynamite verse. And something else, a bit harder to pin down: a peculiar Shakespearean sensibility, a tang, consistent throughout and strong enough to hold it all together. Hard to put my finger on exactly what it might be but it's somthing you find also in the other late plays--I mean The Tempest and Pericles and Winter's Tale. You have to admit that Shakespeare may have been a bit bored with his job by this time, and you probably do have to stretch to enjoy it. But in the end, you can come away satisfied.

I said I'd never seen Henry VIII before: I need to qualify it a little. Again back in the 50s, I stood outside on the lawn and peeked in on a festival-under-the-stars production of it. I didn't stay long, but I did hear Cardinal Wolsey say:
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.
Well, if I could remember only one bit, I suppose this was a pretty good choice.

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