By Manning Harris
Synchronicity Theatre is currently presenting a splendid version of Howard Brenton’s historical drama “Anne Boleyn,” first produced in London in 2010. The current production runs through Oct. 16.
Since I know there are those who cringe at the words “historical drama,” let me hasten to say that this play is by turns suspenseful, witty, vulgar, somber, and fun. It is directed by Richard Garner, who for many years led Georgia Shakespeare; he is an ideal choice here.
When someone mentions Anne Boleyn, you may think of the second wife of England’s King Henry VIII; the one who lost her head. Well, you’re right; but there’s an utterly fascinating backstory which playwright Brenton asks you to consider.
Young, free-spirited (she’s a ghost here, you see) Anne Boleyn (Brooke Owens) faces the audience in the opening scene with a little bag in her hand. She has an amused expression on her face, because she knows she’s reading the audience’s mind; but this plucky lass has a story to tell, and this is her night and her show. Ms. Owens gives a winsome, powerful, and passionate performance.
The action shifts to 1603 where James I (the King James Version), played by Brian Hatch, prepares for his coronation; suddenly we shift back in time where Anne at the English court meets Henry VIII (also played by Mr. Hatch), who’s quite taken with Anne. Henry wants a son, Anne, and a divorce—in that order.
Henry’s first wife was Catherine of Aragon, but she had produced no surviving sons. Henry sought to have the marriage annulled, but Pope Clement VII would have none of it. Meanwhile, by a serendipitous chance, Anne happened to have in her possession William Tyndale’s “The Obedience of a Christian Man,” a book forbidden at the time, as well as the Tyndale Bible. “Obedience” advocated a remarkable idea: The king of a country should be the head of that country’s church.
Anne said, in effect, “Look at this, Henry.” Henry is supposed to have said, “This is a book for me and all kings to read.” But Anne presented Henry with this caveat: We’re not having sex until I’m your legitimate wife.” Henry immediately began divorce proceedings against Catherine, with both Cardinal Wolsey (Kerwin Thompson) and Thomas Cromwell (Allan Edwards) jockeying for position. As you can imagine, much intrigue follows.
I haven’t told you how juicy and how much fun “Anne Boleyn” can be; it has gleeful cross-dressing and bisexuality one moment and deadly serious plot machinations the next. Anne’s legendary daughter, Queen Elizabeth I, said “I never jest when I play for kingdoms” in the film “Anne of the Thousand Days”; that maxim holds true here as well.
Director Garner’s casting is first-rate. Brian Hatch gives a knowing, joyful, break-out performance as Henry VIII; his Henry can be lunging and buffoonish one moment and reveal a penetrating intelligence the next. Never for a moment does Henry forget he’s the King, often surrounded by toadying sycophants. Despite it all, Mr. Hatch’s Henry has fun and feels it’s good to be the king.
There’s a lot of double casting, which can get a bit confusing (especially at first). For example, Doyle Reynolds, one of Atlanta’s best actors, plays three parts, but so adroitly that his characters seem to morph into one another.
Also outstanding are the aforementioned Allan Edwards as Thomas Cromwell and Kerwin Thompson as Cardinal Wolsey. These can be men whom you love to hate; yet they still fascinate. Other excellent performances are contributed by Josh Brook, Timothy Harland, Assata Hefner, Nysa Loudon, and Brittany L. Smith.
Barrett Doyle’s scenic design is beautiful and effective and adds immeasurably to the ambience. Abby Parker’s costumes are lovely; I do think the king’s crown could be a bit more ornate and opulent; don’t know why that bothered me.
The play may cover a bit more ground than is prudent to attempt in one evening; yet the show gathers power and momentum as it progresses.
“Anne Boleyn” is a large and lively entertainment; it’s ultimately well-nigh irresistible. Synchronicity does itself proud.
For tickets and information, visit synchrotheatre.com.