Anne of the Thousand Days

Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse (Crossbow Productions)


By Maxwell Anderson


Nobody was a winner in Tudor times. Henry VIII died bloated from syphilis, two of his wives were executed, two divorced, one died in childbirth and only the lucky last, Catherine Parr, managed to survive her monstrous husband. Of his descendants Edward, the only son, died young before he could wield any personal power, first daughter Mary died embittered and childless, and only Elizabeth, named a bastard by her father, survived to reign happy and glorious.

Of Henry’s friends and advisers in this turbulent period of political and religious turmoil, Cardinal Wolsey died on his way to the Tower of London, while Thomas Cromwell and Thoma More got the chop on the scaffold, as did Bishop John Fisher. Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, managed to survive by betraying members of his own family, notably his unhappy nieces Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and then escaped death on the scaffold himself only because of Henry’s expedient demise.

The Tudor period, during which England went, in a seesaw fashion, from being Catholic to ultimately Protestant, with thousands of deaths along the way, has long fascinated writers and the general public, and the fates of Anne Boleyn and her daughter Elizabeth I have been dissected, analysed, and generally made a meal of on stage and screen and in print for at least the last hundred years, to the extent that many of us feel quite Tudored out.

Elizabeth doesn’t appear in Maxwell Anderson’s 1948 play Anne of the Thousand Days except as an object in a cradle, but she is an important character in that, had she been a boy rather than a girl, her mother Anne would probably have been allowed to live. The play doesn’t pretend to be a faithful historical rendition of the Anne/Henry marriage, but rather an examination of the psychological sub-text to the personal and political power plays that are as relevant today as they were then, although these days the losers don’t end up on the block or tied to the stake not in Western countries, at least.

Crossbow Productions have made their home in Brisbane after a number of years in the USA and Sydney, presumably because founders Christian Heim and Caroline Beck are respectively working at the Royal Brisbane Hospital and undertaking PhD studies at UQ. The company, with its current focus on presenting historical plays with a modern twist, is a welcome addition to the Brisbane theatre scene, for no matter what you may think of their approach, it is an intelligent and lively one, and is guaranteed to engage an audience.

It’s difficult for 21st century people to get inside the 16th century mind, for changes in scientific, religious and social understanding have made it impossible to accept, for example, that the mother can be “blamed” for the sex of her child, or that natural disasters should be interpreted as the will of God, or events construed as direct punishments of an individual. Nor do we accept the concept of the Divine Right of Kings, and our modern sensibilities are shocked by what appears to us to be blinkered thinking and unjustifiable behaviour.

To overcome this problem, Christian Heim, who composed and plays the original music as well as directing the play, has given us a multi-layered chronological interpretation. The costuming, for example, by bridal designer Hilde Heim, is both ultra-modern and sparsely suggestive using, for the women characters, elaborate shot-silk gowns which make no concession to 16th century fashion and, for the men, jackets and jerkins of rich fabric simply thrown over ordinary modern day clothes.

The choice of music is another aspect of the production to ponder. Playwright Maxwell Anderson specified music of Bach or earlier, and Christian Heim is a performer of note, but somehow the High Baroque mood of The Well-Tempered Clavier sits oddly with Heim’s own mock-Renaissance songs. There are plenty of authentic Renaissance songs available, some by Henry himself, but this deliberate decision to modernise the musical mood is another example of the time shifting in this production.

At the heart of the play is the relationship between Henry and Anne, and the mind-games that she, a witty independent woman in a dangerous age, plays with the naïve Henry, who understands nothing except brute power. Anne loses, of course, as most women of the time did, and we may wonder at the risks she takes in dealing with this megalomaniac, but in Caroline Beck’s interpretation she is a woman of integrity, mindful of her status and determined not to submit meekly to being put away as Henry’s first wife had done. She is an edgy, passionate foil for Peter Marshall’s dumb ox Henry, who cannot cope with the complications that arise when his need for an heir, his political responsibilities and his sheer lust become tangled up, and Marshall’s performance gives us a different perspective on a man who is deeply troubled by his conscience but fully conscious of his rights as a monarch.

Other impressive performances are from Stephen Tandy, doubling as the world-weary Cardinal Wolsey and the scheming Duke of Norfolk; and Sandro Colarelli, whose darkly slinking Cromwell has echoes of Richard III as well as a modern Iago. The other actors were adequate rather than outstanding, but worked well as an ensemble.

It’s a treat to see such a thoughtful production of a modern classic, with emphasis on performance rather than tricky design, and with such respect for the text. It’s to be hoped that Crossbow goes from strength to strength, and that we see more of their work in the near future.

Directed by Christian Heim

Playing until 17 June 2006: Wednesday – Saturday 8pm, Saturday matinee 2pm

Duration : 2 hours 15 minutes, with a 15 minute interval

— Alison Cotes
(Performance seen: Thu 8th June 2006)