After more than a year, I finally reach the final play in the Shakespeare canon – Henry VIII, co-written with John Fletcher. Mysteriously, I’m unable to engage with this play, no matter how many times I revisit it. And the Argo recording is truly splendid, with more period music than ever and a really great performance by Robert Speaight as Wolsey.
And we’re dealing with one of the more colorful personalities in English history – bluff King Hal, Henry VIII of the 8 wives who has been chronicled more times by more playwrights and performers than (surely) any other English monarch. He is Charles Laughton tossing his table scraps over his shoulder while complaining about the vulgarity of the age; he is Robert Shaw cackling manically as he wades to the shore to confront Paul Scofield’s Man for All Seasons; he is Keith Michell choking with fury at Thomas Cronwell’s condescension in The Six Wives of Henry VIII and he is Richard Burton, first charismatic and then hateful in Anne of the Thousand Days. And that’s when I stopped watching, for of course there are many subsequent depictions, for all I know the more recent versions are as many as those previous.
But there are common features – Henry the royal baby, incapable of distinguishing between his own will and the good of the country, his fundamental myopic selfishness forever the target of statesmen and advisors willing to play the dangerous game of circling in his orbit.
And then there’s the Shakespeare/Fletcher beastie, who is not like that at all. While all the familiar plot points are there, Henry never takes center stage and never really drives events. Indeed, he is strangely passive, a factor that removes the drama of a critical element – for as reprehensible a bugbear as Henry is, the sheer intensity of his blobby tyranny has an attractive force. This is simply absent from Shakespeare’s play, and Frank Duncan, the actor who plays him in the Argo recording, can do nothing to restore the missing color. This leaves the world for lesser men to bustle in – there’s a wonderfully irascible Buckingham from Ian Lang, a model of warmth and dignity from Margaretta Scott as Katherine of Aragon, and of course, the magnificent Wolsey of Robert Speaight, an actor (1904-1976) whose legacy has not been widely recorded. Though he was the original Becket in TS Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral and seems to have been busy on stage before and after, even as he became known as a historian and critic, his movies and tv appearances are sparse and uninteresting. (He did show up, unexpectedly, alongside Orson Welles for a Mercury Theatre broadcast of The Green Goddess in 1939 as Major Crespin, about a year after the close of the Broadway run of Murder). But as the Argo recording demonstrates, he was an actor capable of extraordinary power, and he believably merges Wolsey the power-broker with Wolsey the public servant and cleric and makes him a genuinely tragic figure.
Someone has kindly made available an excerpt of Speaight as Thomas Becket here.
Adding to Henry’s attack of diffidence are some very long scenes and some very thinly-written speeches, long sections where nothing happens and stretches of exposition that make one’s head ache, and Queen Katherine’s death scene, which is both misplaced chronologically and heavily padded. And there are places where you are expecting that Shakespearean razzle dazzle, a wonderful descriptive passage or bit of low comedy, and all you get is the rather flat description of the Field of the Cloth of Gold – you can almost feel the play revving up for the rhetorical climax that never shows up. Blame Fletcher?
And that’s that. I may finish up my biography of Ernest Milton, as it is a remarkable tale, but my trip through the works of Shakespeare is concluded.