Review: "Henry VIII" at Stratford Festival

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

No matter any of our beliefs concerning the place and/or future of royalty, for some reason many seem to delight in hearing about the dish and dirt behind kings, queens, dukes and archbishops. Robert Bolt’s ‘A Man for All Seasons’ introduced me to the back-door dealings of the Henry Tudor and his disintegrating relationship with Sir Thomas More. I had never read ‘Henry VIII’ during my undergraduate years at Western, so I had to do a bit of research into this time frame before seeing the current Stratford production.

Purported to be a collaborative history play between William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, the story of ‘Henry VIII’ follows only two of Henry’s wives, Katherine of Aragon (a Spanish princess) and Anne Boleyn. Katherine was brought to England to marry Henry’s older brother, Arthur. When Arthur died suddenly, the young Henry (only eleven years of age) was to marry Katherine as a political union to quell and calm relations between Spain and its empire to the fortunes of England. When Henry VII passed away and his son ascended the throne, Katherine and the king were married for twenty-four years.

When it appeared that Katherine would not be able to produce a male heir, and as Defender of the Catholic faith in the country, Henry sought a way to have a marriage with a younger woman legal within the Catholic Church (the predominant faith at the time). He set his eyes on the young Anne Boleyn, a lady in waiting to Katherine.

Along with this bit of relevant historical information, the play also follows the intrigue behind the scenes of the high ranking in the Tudor Court. Given what I had researched about the play, I wondered if a larger theatre (instead of the intimate Studio Theatre) should have been used to encompass the grandiosity of the story.

It wasn’t necessary as Director Martha Henry deftly and smartly focuses more on the volatile relationships between the characters to move this play along. Within the intimate confines of the Studio theatre, Francesca Callow’s minimalist split-level set design of the royal archway immediately establishes where the setting takes place. There is a playing space at the top of the archway which is effectively used. Henry’s throne is moved forward quietly when necessary for any of the scenes in court. Additionally, Ms. Callow’s costume designs are exquisitely gorgeous to behold. To me, I felt they had reflected nicely the Tudor era. Louise Guinand’s lighting design expertly highlights many intense moments. For me, one that was especially effective was in the second act when Katherine, now divorced from Henry and living away from the palace, has grown ill.

What made this play work for me were the sharply unwavering performances. Irene Poole is captivating, riveting and every inch a noble queen who, in my opinion, has been wronged. Pay close attention to the trial set up for the divorce in the second act. Ms. Poole delivers such strong tour de force work that I had to stop making notes in my book, put my pen down, and simply watch a professional actor at work. I had gone to see ‘Mother’s Daughter’ several weeks ago. Ms. Poole appears in this production as the ghost of Katherine. Hindsight being twenty/twenty, I wish I had seen this production first before ‘Mother’s Daughter’.

Just like Ms. Poole, Jonathan Goad is wonderfully every inch the King in his performance. Yes, Mr. Goad’s Henry is at times aloof, demanding and abrasive, but we also see a King who did care about Katherine and what became of her. Mr. Goad’s silent looks he gives to Ms. Poole during the divorce trial scene indicated a possibility of ‘What am I doing to this woman?’  Powerful, solid work.

As the conniving Cardinal Wolsey who does receive retributive justice for his so-called treasonous actions, Rod Beattie is top notch as he made me feel many emotions – anger, empathy, sadness. Here was a man who was in good favour with the King, and Wolsey blew it all. As the Duke of Buckingham, Tim Campbell is convincingly articulate in his opening scene of his mistrust against Cardinal Wolsey which ultimately leads to a charge of treason. As Henry’s new wife and queen, Alexandra Lainfiesta thankfully does not play Anne in a tarty or disrespectful manner. Both Lainfiesta and Poole have created believable emotional responses which again makes us feel so much for them. The one bit of noteworthy humour in the play occurs where Anne receives news she has received title from the King. Her giddy response to the situation gave much needed laughter in a tautly dramatic production.

There were two stellar theatrical moments in Act 2 that resonated with me, and I can still picture these moments.  One is Anne’s coronation and the other is Princess Elizabeth’s (soon Queen Elizabeth I) christening. Once again, Martha Henry astutely showed that one does not require a large theatrical venue to create magical moments. Again, I put my pen and notebook away and just watched with amazement.

Final Comments: As we left the auditorium, I heard some audience members behind me say this production was quite a historical lesson.  A young girl and her father sat next to me.  She turned to him at the end and said, “I understood a bit of what was going on”.  I turned to both and thanked them appreciatively for their support of live theatre and for learning a bit of history.

You should come to Stratford and learn a bit about the history of the Tudors too.

‘Henry VIII’ continues in repertory at The Studio Theatre, 34 George Street, Stratford Ontario until October 12, 2019.  For further information, visit or call 1-800-567-1600.

Running Time approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes with one interval.

Photo of Jonathan Goad as King Henry VIII and Irene Poole as Queen Katherine taken by Emily Cooper.

Performers: Shelly Antony, Rod Beattie, Wayne Best, Tim Campbell, John Dolan, Jacklyn Francis, Danny Ghantous, Jonathan Goad, Jordin Hall,  Brad Hodder, Kim Horsman, Andrew Illes, Ron Kennell, Qasim Khan, Alexandra Lainfiesta, Roy Lewis, Irene Poole, Jake Runeckles, Stephen Russell, Oksana Sirju, Scott Wentworth, Rylan Wilkie,

Director: Martha Henry; Designer: Francesca Callow; Lighting Designer: Louise Guinand; Composer and Sound Designer: Keith Thomas; Fight Director: Anita Nittoly; Movement Director: Valerie Moore; Stage Manager: Ann Stuart