You might not expect a drama about the revolutionary potential of the King James Bible to include the line “I can’t go round all day with a hard-on.” Not only is it there in “Anne Boleyn,” it’s spoken by Henry VIII, an indication of playwright Howard Brenton’s hugely welcome irreverence. The play is openly biased, not wholly historically convincing and finally runs out of steam. But its mix of religious and sexual politics amounts to an unusually entertaining case of heroine addiction.
Booting away the traditional bio-drama approach beloved of “Anne of the Thousand Days” and countless other royal retreads, Brenton’s Boleyn girl (spirited Miranda Raison) is presented as a ghost. Given that she was beheaded in 1536 on trumped-up charges of treason, the obvious route would have been to present her as haunting her desperate husband Henry VIII (Anthony Howell). Brenton, however, is in pursuit of a bigger idea.
He presents her as the subject of the feverish dreams and day-to-day religious reality of James I (gleeful, all-stops-out James Garnon) who ascended the English throne 67 years after her death.
Brenton contends that her democratic religious sympathies led her into an immensely dangerous association with the religious rebel William Tyndale (Peter Hamilton Dyer). Tyndale was the first person to translate the Latin Bible into English, an act so threatening to the supremacy of church authority that he was burned at the stake.
Tyndale’s fate is not covered by the play, but Anne’s connection with him is shown to influence James to commission what became the Church of England’s now-standard translation of the Bible.
Having previously written for the Globe (Shakespeare called the original venue the Wooden O), Brenton fully understands what does and doesn’t work in this semi-outdoor, almost circular space where approximately half the attendees must stand.
Direct audience address is paramount, and it’s there from the get-go with Anne toying with the crowd and rummaging in her bag to produce her own severed head. A huge percentage of the characters use knowing asides or speeches to those assembled.
This allows exposition to be handled with uncommon ease. Released from slow-footed naturalism that might otherwise dog religious debates, Brenton can accelerate the arguments by having a character cut to the chase with the cheeky announcement “five hours later…”
Comedy, indeed, is kept to the fore in this boisterous account that’s closer in tone to Showtime’s “The Tudors” than Hilary Mantel’s meticulous Booker prize-winning bestseller “Wolf Hall.”
John Dove’s period production is notably strong in the character roles, especially Amanda Lawrence’s vivid Lady Rochford, who is horribly compromised by John Dougall’s lazer-like Thomas Cromwell.
The weaknesses lie in the plotting, which pits Anne so forcefully against the religious factions that Henry VIII is reduced to being a pawn in other people’s games. His rejection of her in favor of Jane Seymour therefore has insufficient weight or power.
A smart addition to the Globe’s new writing canon, “Anne Boleyn” is a play of ideas written as a crowd pleaser. Its major flaw — that it pretends authorial juxtapositions are fully-fledged argument — would be exposed were it to play a more traditional theater.
But in the replica of the Globe, for which it was conceived, it makes an enjoyable counterbalance to the season’s Shakespeares, not least this year’s production of “Henry VIII.”