Year of Shakespeare: Henry VIII (All is True)

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Photo: Ellie Kurttz

Directed by Ernesto Arias for Fundación Siglo de Oro (Spain) for Shakespeare’s Globe, London.

The Globe to Globe festival made a notoriously misinformed claim in its subtitle: ‘37 plays, 37 languages.’ Three Spanish-speaking companies were invited to take part in the festival, and were duly advertised as performing in ‘Argentine’, ‘Mexican’, and ‘Castilian’ Spanish: three regional variants of one of the most unified languages in existence. Unlike English, Spanish is regulated by a central authority: the Association of Spanish Language Academies, who jointly publish the same dictionary, grammar, and orthography in all Spanish-speaking countries. If it was certainly a privilege to see three productions in Spanish as part of the festival, one can scarcely imagine that the Globe would advertise productions in Australian, Jamaican, or British English as distinct and separate ‘languages’, which is probably why they decided to announce the production of Othello by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater as being performed in ‘Hip Hop’. Spain’s contribution was a special commission from the Globe, who chose Henry VIII rather than the more obviously Spanish Love’s Labours Lost, a play that, after all, takes place in Navarre, and includes the stereotypically excessive Don Adriano de Armado among its principal characters.

The choice of company was also unlikely. The Fundación Siglo de Oro (formerly Rakatá) is a young non-subsidised company founded in 2003 that—unusually for a private ensemble—specialises in the performance of Spanish Golden Age drama. One would have expected, perhaps, that the Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico, established in 1986 following the publicly funded model of the RSC, would have been institutionally more appropriate. But the turbulent cultural politics of Spain seem to have operated in Rakatá’s favour. The lack of State support was partially alleviated by the individual aid of two public institutions: Madrid’s Teatro Español loaned the costumes from their wardrobe, while the town of Almagro, home of the International Festival of Classical Theatre, lent the company their Corral de Comedias—the only seventeenth-century outdoor playhouse to have survived in Spain—to rehearse in a space that resembles the setup of the Globe.

The choice of play, however, is immediately justifiable by the centrality of Katherine of Aragon, who constitutes the most memorable and vivid character in Fletcher and Shakespeare’s collaboration. In the textual adaptation, she was appropriately transformed into the tragic heroine of the story. The dramaturg José Padilla, in collaboration with the director, Ernesto Arias, and his assistant, Rafael Díez Labín, cleverly re-arranged scenes and speeches, and conflated secondary characters to clarify the plot, always following the basic structure of the original play. The result was a prose text in contemporary Spanish that, at the same time, managed to use diction that was recognisably reminiscent of the Spanish Golden Age.

The show started with music from an organ in the gallery played by composer Juan Manuel Artero. Among other Spanish Renaissance pieces, I identified the beautiful Recercada segunda sobre el passamezzo moderno by Diego Ortiz. The male members of the cast—11 out of 14—came on stage from the yard, wearing basic jackets and modern trousers. They bowed to the cheering audience in pairs or individually, and went into the tiring house. The last two, Asier Tartás and Diego Santos, stayed to speak the opening prologue. Tartás appropriately inserted the line from Henry V referring to ‘this wooden O’, not included in the adapted script. They put on Renaissance overcoats and caps on top of their modern dress, a simple but effective device used by all the actors that managed to suggest the historical setting, whilst probably minimising the costs of securing and travelling with a full period wardrobe.

Fernando Gil was an imposing Henry VIII who, like other members of the company, sacrificed subtlety for audibility, relying on a constant mezzoforte that seemed unnecessary in a space where clarity of diction easily allows the sound to carry through the auditorium. Jesús Fuente, playing Wolsey, offered a more nuanced performance, even if slightly one-dimensional in presenting the Cardinal’s ambition as the only driving force of the part. Buckingham (Julio Hidalgo) started his final speech among the groundlings, who received his onstage beheading with amusement at a convincing special effect. The scene, interpolated before the feast at Wolsey’s house, provided a startling contrast between that tragic climax, and the subsequent triviality of the King’s courtship of Anne Bullen. The weakest link in the cast, though, was Sara Moraleda, a good-looking young actress who somewhat downplayed Anne’s complexities.

Cranmer’s part was retained and enlarged (played by Jesús Teyssiere as a long-haired religious fanatic in black robes), and was contrasted with Gardiner (conflated with Cromwell; played by Alejandro Saá); but, though the religious controversy was elaborated towards the end of the show, it was by no means central to this version. Instead, most cuts, additions, and re-arrangement of key moments managed to focus the play almost exclusively on the fate of the dispossessed Katherine of Aragon, played by the remarkable Elena González. Her performance was full of tragic dignity, and profoundly moving, providing the two emotional cores of the show. On the one hand, the trial scene at Blackfriars was re-structured so that her long speech defending her cause was presented after the King’s, giving her the last word, after which she exited through the yard mingling with the groundlings to striking effect. On the other hand, in a startling take on the final scene, Princess Elizabeth’s baptism was enacted as a vision that a desperate Katherine contemplates in her chamber as her lady in waiting is narrating the events; as the ceremony drew to its climax, the Queen collapsed on stage, and was covered with a shawl.

This carefully crafted, but appropriately stripped-down production resulted in a memorable evening that concluded with a song and a dance, after which the audience recompensed the company’s efforts with a very long and well-deserved final bow.

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Author:José A. Pérez Díez

José A. Pérez Díez is undertaking his doctoral studies at The Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, working on the first fully annotated, modern-spelling critical edition of John Fletcher's 'Love's Cure, or The Martial Maid' (visit He teaches at the University of Birmingham and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and reviews Renaissance drama in performance for 'Shakespeare Bulletin' and 'Cahiers Élisabethains'.

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