Theatre and book reviews by Janice Dempsey
Bullying, insults, extortion of confessions through fear and betrayal of trust, all are timeless techniques employed by the powerful in a society divided by inequality. The politics of gender, money, power and religion were equally responsible for the severing of Anne Boleyn’s head from her body, as the sword that cut through that “little neck”. Sarah Gibbons is a beautiful, charismatic Anne who develops from a wilful teenager of nineteen into a focussed young woman who prizes her own honesty and perseverance above all, holding her own among the bullying men who rule Henry VII’s court. Her cowed and fearful female friends betray her despite their love for her, when they're beaten and threatened with torture. "I want to stay alive", moans Lady Rochford (Claire Rackleyft) to Anne afterwards.
As far as the status of independent-minded women is concerned, nothing has changed in James's time. But does he intend to use his autocratic power in a new way that will bring the country together? Has Anne’s attempt to promote Protestantism changed the balance of power in religion? Did James’s English translation of the Bible based on all the disputing factions in the English church heal the rifts he (and Anne before him) saw in British society?
James's dealings with the clergy verge on torture: they're locked in a room for hours without food or drink, and expected to "sort it out among themselves". They emerge, weakened, but standing fast in opposition to any attempt to make worship more "democratic": there must always be a barrier between the elite clergy and the congregation. The absurdity of the scene where altar-rails are seen as a vital matter on which there can be no compromise or agreement is only in the minds of us, the future audience.
As Anne says, the “demons of the past” wouldn’t recognise the minds that we, “demons of the future”, bring to the questions this play asks. And Howard Brenton doesn’t pretend to offer answers, other than Anne’s simple prayer for kindness.