Divorced, Beheaded, Died

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Originally written for the RSC’s Bring Up the Bodies programme.

Henry VIII remains one of the most compelling leaders that history has to offer us. The charismatic monarch can lay many claims to fame: his break with the authority of the Pope and the Catholic Church, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, his passion for eating and drinking. But what Henry VIII is perhaps best remembered for is his fickle matrimonial record and the six women he infamously wed.

Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies only feature the first three of the King’s unlucky spouses: divorced, beheaded, died, as the mnemonic reminds us. According to actors Lucy Briers, Lydia Leonard and Leah Brotherhead, playing Katherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour respectively, you would struggle to find three more different women. “If Anne was someone who was going to make a grand entrance through the front door, Jane would be the person who came through the back door,” says Brotherhead, contrasting the fatal arrogance of Henry’s second wife with the quiet diffidence of his third. Continuing the metaphor, Briers suggests that Katherine, a politically powerful Queen who was unwaveringly assured of the divine right of her position, “would be flown in by helicopter”. Whatever their differences, however, there is little doubt that these were three extraordinary historical figures.

Katherine of Aragon, often relegated to a prologue in the juicy tale of Anne Boleyn’s rise and downfall, was a fascinating figure in her own right. Born into royalty and power, the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon was assured of her place in the world and knew from a young age that she was destined to be Queen of England – first as the wife of Henry VIII’s short-lived older brother Arthur and then as Henry’s first spouse. “She has absolutely no qualms about her status and her predestined right to be where she is,” explains Briers, “which is why what happens to her is so horrific to her and so appalling. It not only breaks laws of the land and religious laws, but it’s her entire moral framework being taken down in front of her.”

Katherine was married to Henry for over 20 years – more than the King’s five subsequent marriages put together. Their union was put to an end by a combination of Katherine’s inability to offer Henry the male heir he so desperately desired and the King’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn. Anne, meanwhile, has had her fair share of infamy in the history books – “every lurid accusation in Europe was flung at her,” Leonard points out – making her a “gift of a role”. This was a woman who held Henry’s interest for six years before he was finally able to marry her, but who was executed within three years of their wedding day. “It’s interesting watching her lose control,” says Leonard. “She starts off very much in control, and as that grip loosens it’s sort of like watching a car crash.”

Jane Seymour, in contrast to her two predecessors, is careful, quiet and modest. “I’ve not quite made up my mind on how ambitious Jane is or how much of a pawn she is,” Brotherhead reflects on her role. “A lot of historians made the decision that because Jane was so quiet and mild-mannered, she was meek and a bit stupid, whereas Hilary doesn’t think that’s what Jane’s like at all; she’s quiet and incredibly observant.”

It would be easy to assume, given the precariousness of their position, that the three Queens were helpless to their fates. Briers, Leonard and Brotherhead, however, suggest that each of these women was powerful in her way. “Katherine is incredibly manipulative in terms of power playing because she was born into it and she understands it,” says Briers. “She understands the theatricality of power.” This political power is lacking in Anne, but Leonard points out that “she has an incredible power over Henry”. Jane, meanwhile, has a “quiet kind of power about her” according to Brotherhead: “she is incredibly brave, but in a very stoic and subdued way”.

In the process of getting to know the three Queens, each of the actors has forged a powerful connection with their role. “They’re amazing women, all three of them, and you can really connect with all of their decisions,” says Brotherhead. Faced with the pressure of not only doing justice to Mantel’s novels, but also capturing three of the most famous women in history, all three actors are dealing with this in different ways. “I feel more of a responsibility to the person I’m playing than anybody else,” says Briers. “I want to honour her.” Leonard, on the other hand, feels the weight of the books more keenly: “I personally feel more of a commitment to playing Hilary Mantel’s Anne Boleyn, because that’s what’s going to make this whole story turn.”

Mantel herself has been involved throughout the rehearsal process, offering extensive character notes and answering detailed questions about the period. “It was like having somebody from Tudor times time travelling to our rehearsal room,” Leonard laughs, acknowledging the meticulous research that went into the novels and has provided much of the material for shaping these three roles. “Rarely do you work with such amazing novels,” she adds. “Everything’s there.”

The Tudor era, as Mantel has demonstrated, is itself the source of continued fascination. Discussing the time in which these historical narratives are set, all three actors suggest that it is the heightened, theatrical quality of this period that captures the imagination. “There’s so much game playing and with so much at stake,” says Brotherhead. “I think that’s what’s so intriguing.” Considering Anne’s fate, Leonard adds that “the way that sex and politics are so totally linked together is juicy and powerful”. For Briers, however, and clearly for Mantel as well, it is the personalities who hold the greatest interest.

“It’s these people who just create ripples of change and revolutions, good or bad, that people want to keep re-examining.”

Photo: Keith Pattison.

DNA, Unicorn Theatre

A group of teenagers are in trouble. Big trouble. What began as a playful bit of bullying – ‘a laugh’ – has spun wildly out of control and one of their classmates now lies dead in the woods. The only solution, as it appears to this shocked group of youngsters, is to cover it up. It seems like they might just get away with murder, but the lie that they have fabricated soon becomes bigger than they could have anticipated in Dennis Kelly’s unsettling thriller, originally written for the National Theatre’s Connections programme and now revived by the Hull Truck Theatre.

Unlike some other dramatists targeting troubled youth as their subject matter, Kelly does not patronise his adolescent protagonists, nor does he dwell gratuitously on their violence. The terrible act that binds the group together takes place off stage, as does a subsequent instance of violence, thus refusing to make these shocking events the visual centrepiece of the play. Instead, this incident becomes a springboard to explore this group of teenagers and their relationship to the world and one another, relationships that are heightened by the predicament they find themselves in. The central moral dilemma faced by the teenagers – is it better to come clean or to cover up what they have done for the greater good of the group? – is the hinge of the piece, but is far from the only issue that Kelly is prodding at.

Much of these issues are communicated through the character of Leah, who barely pauses for breath throughout most of the play. In a constant stream of chatter that betrays her brittle insecurity and desperate need to be liked, this waffling yet oddly insightful teenager touches on profound questions of time, meaning and the nature of humanity in a delicately poignant performance from Leah Brotherhead. While the unrelenting talk occasionally verges on the irritating, Kelly has wrapped up in Leah that very teenage contradiction of developing self-awareness and crippling anxiety, and through her seemingly light conversation begins to get close to the truth of what it is to be trapped in the confusion of adolescence.

Leah’s verbal diarrhoea is contrasted with the brooding, indifferent silence of her companion Phil, who seems more intent on his food than on anything she spouts. Crisps, sweets, a waffle meticulously drizzled with jam – rarely has food occupied such a demanding place in centre stage. Despite barely uttering a word, James Alexandrou pulls off the most genuinely disturbing performance of the piece as this determinedly mute yet commanding figure, and when he does open his mouth he formulates a plan to get the group out of trouble with the calm, calculated precision of a psychopath. The most impressive achievement of Kelly’s writing, however, is his lack of condemnation; while we appreciate that what this group of teenagers have done is deeply wrong, we continue to be compelled to care about them and even to an extent to understand the situation that they have backed themselves into. This, we can imagine, is just what a group of panicking teenagers might do when offered what seems to be a way out.

While the young characters themselves are for the most part rendered plausibly – if perhaps a little less foul-mouthed than might be expected under the circumstances – the world that Kelly has created has a nightmarish, surreal quality, with echoes of Lord of the Flies inevitably raising their voices. Before the squirming teenagers know it, they are blocked in behind the bars of their own lie, forced down the increasingly twisting paths of a complex labyrinth of deceit. They have fallen down the rabbit hole and there is no way out. The sense of heightened reality is intensified by the pulsing lights and dazzling projections of this production’s simple but striking design, although the mat of grass that is regularly dragged out for Phil and Leah’s scenes together seems an unnecessary item of clutter in an otherwise effectively minimal set.

For such a darkly atmospheric piece, however, there is a sense in which this feels oddly, paradoxically safe. The description of Adam’s death, while building escalating tension, lacks a chill of horror; we never experience the visceral shiver of shock that ought to accompany the darkening action. This may partly be due to a certain elusive ingredient missing from Anthony Banks’ otherwise impressive production, but I suspect that it might have more to do with the text’s uptake by the GCSE curriculum. I certainly have nothing against introducing schoolchildren to such compelling and challenging work – this is just the sort of thing that we should be encouraging young people to see – but I fear that this revival, which has clearly been created with students in mind, has taken the edge off Kelly’s script. Ironically, it is that very edge that might have really captured the attention of its young audience.

DNA runs at the Unicorn Theatre until 28 April and is then touring until 25 May.

Image: Simon Annand