(L-R) Ian Merrill Peakes (King Henry VIII) and Louis Butelli (Will Sommers), in Henry VIII, Folger Theater (photo by Carol Pratt)
While it is not exactly unknown or unperformed, it is rare enough that this production is likely to be of interest to people, like myself, who have never seen the play staged. If you are expecting a more or less complete version, with all of the pageantry associated with a grand history play, you will be disappointed. However, the idea created by director Robert Richmond and dramaturg Michele Osherow was to weave a much more intimate sense of the drama around the person of Henry VIII's somewhat famous court jester Will Sommers. This character, a historical personage not actually in the text of the play, reads the prologue and other narrative passages and takes on several minor roles, both male and female, giving the impression of a whimsical demiurge controlling the action behind the scenes. That the concept works is largely to the credit of the talented and very funny actor, Louis Butelli, who appears remarkably like the known illustrations of Sommers -- at least one of them is in the Folger's exhibit -- with his balding head and stubble but without the monkey literally on his back. He entertains periodically with a box of puppets (designed by Betsy Rosen) and other props, representing the powerful characters in the play, and orchestrates the movements of the other actors with wizard-like gestures.
Shakespeare's text has been either bowdlerized or cut down to a manageable length, depending on your point of view. The running time is about two and a half hours, thanks to removal of several scenes and parts of scenes. This eliminates some of the more esoteric historical aspects of the play, like the interference of orthodox Catholic clergy in these events leading up to the separation of the Anglican church -- there is no reference to either the scheming "Chartreux Monk" (that is, a monk from the Charterhouse, the Carthusian monastery in London that formed the ultra-orthodoxy of Thomas More among others) or Thomas More, chosen to succeed the disgraced Cardinal Wolsey as chancellor and who met his own bad end. Perhaps most regrettably, the cuts slightly diminish the character of Henry's wife, Katherine of Aragon, whom the king decides, after much anguish, to divorce in the hope of producing a male heir with another wife. She is one of the most sympathetic and interesting female characters among the many produced by Shakespeare, and even with the cutsm Helen Hayes Award winner Naomi Jacobson gives a fiery performance in the role, her words tinged with a slight Spanish accent.
Peter Marks, Folger Theatre's 'Henry VIII' (Washington Post, October 20)
Philip Kennicott, Shakespeare’s Last Oratorio (October 17)
Barbara Mackay, Folger’s ‘Henry VIII’ an energetic, outstanding show (Washington Examiner, October 18)
This production of Shakespeare's Henry VIII continues through November 21, at the Folger Theater.
The Folger Theater has extended the run of this production through November 28.