BWW Review: A Rare and Topical Revival of ANNE OF THE THOUSAND DAYS at CSC
There are so many very good dramatic treatments of the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn out there (A Man for All Seasons, Wolf Hall, and The Tudors, to name a few), it might prompt one to ask why Chesapeake Shakespeare Company has chosen to revive Maxwell Anderson's seldom-produced 1948 blank verse rendering of the tale. Lesley Malin, the company's managing director, perhaps anticipating that question, told the audience on press night that she had fallen in love with the show many years ago.
And maybe love is the right answer. More than any other version of the story I'm familiar with, this is a sort of love story. That statement might raise an eyebrow or two, since it's hard to contemplate much swooniness en route to a breakup that ends with one party having the other beheaded. Yet Anderson clearly saw it as a love story. The dramatic tipping point, for instance, is what Anne calls the one day she and Henry loved each other in the same way. But we are not in Harlequin or even bodice-ripper territory.
Instead - and this makes the play immensely topical - this tale is first and foremost about the confusing way love works when the man is immensely powerful, dishonest and fickle, in a world where men make the rules, many of them quite arbitrary. Many of us might have assumed that that kind of world had disappeared along with Don Draper and the three-martini lunch, until a certain presidential candidate's tape and the accounts of women who claimed to have been abused by him - and/or by another presidential candidate's husband - reminded us that that world may be a-dying, but hardly dead.
When we first encounter Anne (a splendid Lizzi Albert), she is happily trying to forge her own romantic path with her suitor Lord Percy (Gerrad Alex Taylor), with sexual autonomy very much a part of the pursuit (she frankly acknowledging her earlier sexual experimentation at the French court). In comes Cardinal Wolsey (Gregory Burgess), with a cease-and-desist order, since King Henry has his eye on Anne and is putting dibs on her. Otherwise put, the forces of church and state are collaborating to force Anne into mistress-hood, a disadvantageous state to a woman with prospects, with a man who, being already married in Catholic Europe, cannot divorce and hence cannot marry her, and who does not even attract her.
It would seem that her autonomy is at an end, yet she fights back courageously, giving way to Henry's advances only in exchange for huge changes in the rules and the situation: in order to achieve her, Henry must break with the Catholic Church, divorce his wife, execute some of the foremost men of the realm, including Chancellor Thomas More (E. Martin Early), and greatly alter the course of history.
We know from history, and indeed from the two monologues that form a prologue to the action, what will come of Anne's attempt to negotiate a worthwhile surrender to Henry's power, but Anderson manages to make the upshot shocking nonetheless. He does this in large measure by a knowing depiction of Henry, a man as heedlessly self-deluding as a certain presidential candidate, who wants to believe that his pursuit of sexual variety is what God wills and has blessed, that his quest for a legitimate male heir is the discharge of duty to his dynasty, and not mere vanity - and even that his amateur versifying and composition is first-class. Ron Heneghan does a fine job conveying the frightful blankness at the core of the man, without making a cipher of him; in fact, Heneghan makes it possible to say we always understand Henry better than he understands himself.
In essence, Anderson tells us, Henry could never be loved safely and successfully. Anne's effort to do so is spectacularly successful, but only for a short time (and hence the title) - but even that short time, like a bronco rider's in the saddle, should be deemed a triumph of sorts, given not only Henry's sociopathic personality but also the strange male-ordained rules that that effort was entangled with. These rules included male primogeniture, the religious doctrines forbidding divorce, the politically-controlled annulment process, and the weird abstract theories of church and state the modification of which required the very concrete judicial slaughter of so many dissenters.
Yet at the same time Anne, like Henry, is engaged in more than just affairs of the heart. She too ends up playing (and winning, on the best terms available to her) the game of thrones. Just before her arrest, she is offered a choice, which she recognizes lies between survival and legacy. Her choice of the latter is immediate, and has long-lasting positive effects, dwarfing those made by her ostensibly more powerful husband.
Anderson's Anne, then, is correctly seen as a feminist heroine from a time before there was even a language for such things. When we realize that, we more fully grasp why the CSC chose to revive the play. Going back to the other dramatic works that touch upon Anne's rise (and downfall) that I cited earlier, Robert Bolt's play sanctified one powerful man (Anne does not appear as a character), Hilary Mantel's dramatized books draw us into the world of another man, and The Tudors adopts a more general focus. Anderson uniquely contemplates the situation and achievement of a woman, Anne Boleyn. She proves herself a worthy object of contemplation.
CSC's production is also largely a women's achievement, starting with director Kasi Campbell, whose work with The Rep company in Columbia I have admired, and continuing with what is billed as CSC's first all-female design team. The costumes, courtesy of Kristina Lambdin, are particularly striking. (In particular, be on the lookout for the red dress in which Anne dances the tarantella.)
An evening at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's downtown theater is almost always a delight, what with The Globe Theatre-inspired architecture, the musical warmups and entre-actes, the readily-accessible bars, the up-close-and-personal sight-lines, and the nightly wine-lottery. As tremendous as William Shakespeare himself always is, it is good to see the company continuing to stretch its legs and venture a few steps away from its namesake, particularly to provide us something so unusual. It all adds up to an evening of theater that should not be missed.
[Note: A fascinating blog completely devoted to literary, dramatic, and cinematic works about Anne Boleyn, including Anne of the Thousand Days, is The Head That Launched a Thousand Books, well worth a look before heading out for the theater.]
Anne of the Thousand Days, by Maxwell Anderson, directed by Kasi Campbell, through November 13, 2016, at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21202. Tickets $19-$49. 410-244-8570, email@example.com. Some violence, discussion of decapitation.
Photo credit: Teresa Castracane