Anne Boleyn lost her head.
Everyone knows that.
Little else is known about the infamously short-lived second wife of King Henry VIII. Largely because her husband all but erased her memory from the history books, scraping her name from all monuments, burning her pictures, making it a crime to speak her name aloud—all of which, of course, came after he had her head chopped off.
In Howard Brenton’s perceptive and audacious comedy-drama ‘Anne Boleyn’—running through May 7th at Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley—the award-winning author indulges his own meticulously researched speculations about ‘Anne Boleyn’s’ life, resulting in an intelligent, funny, and probably not all that historically accurate collision of sex, politics and religion.
Directed with confidence and creativity by Jasson Minadakis, Brenton’s play fills in the missing bits of history with gutsy glee and a perceptive understanding of how politics and religion work.
It’s fun, too.In the opening scene, Anne Boleyn’s ghost appears, bloody but unbowed, clutching a bag we assume contains her severed head.
“You want to see it?” she asks the audience.
You bet we do.
What happens next, though, is a bit of a surprise, a good one, and it’s just the first of many in Brenton’s clever, intelligent tale of blood, sex, and faith, as Anne Boleyn returns from the dead to tell her side of the story.
Bouncing between the16th century court of King Henry VIII and that of the 17th Century King James I (both played brilliantly by Craig Marker), the play eventually suggests that the world might not have ended up with the King James Bible, had not a deeply religious Boleyn strategically employed her sexual charms to force a break between her king and the Catholic Pope.
Thus did one of history’s most notorious home-wreckers purposefully pave the way for the Protestant reformation—of which she was a kind to freelance secret agent—which was subsequently allowed to gain a foothold in a staunchly Catholic England.
Unable to provide a male heir to the King, Boleyn’s machinations eventually make enough enemies that, well, her head’s removed. Oops. But not before giving birth to Elizabeth, who will eventually succeed her father on the throne, and will eventually be succeeded herself by James of Scotland.
Did I mention there’s a lot of historical detail?
In the King James parts of the story, having discovered Boleyn’s secretly hidden and thoroughly forbidden Protestant Bible, King James hits on a way to unify his fractured kingdom, by commissioning a new translation of the word of God, a Bible that will ultimately bear his own name.
It’s a bit thick with information, yes, and there are a number of lengthy conversation about the meaning of variation scriptures, but Minadakis is masterful at keeping the story clipping along and not forgetting that, we the audience, want to see lots of sex and slinky stuff along with the bits about the Bible.
As Anne, Liz Sklar is magnificent, playing so many spot-on emotional notes you’d think she was auditioning for the symphony instead of giving the performance of her career. Aided by a jaw dropping set by Nina Ball and era-blurring fashions by Ashley Holvick, the large cast, able and energetic, swaps costumes and characters almost as frequently as Henry swapped wives.
‘Anne Boleyn’ runs Tuesday–Sunday through May 8 at Marin Theatre Company. Marintheater.org.
I’m David Templeton, Second Row Center, for KRCB.