REVIEW: Tragic tale from Tudor period looks at some complex issues

Roseanna Sargent and James Collins
Roseanna Sargent and James Collins

Katherine Howard, The Archway Theatre, Horley, Friday, November 1

Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.

Even if this simple rhyme alone sums up your knowledge of Henry VIII’s wives, then you’ll know that things didn’t turn out well for his fifth lover, Katherine Howard.

However, it’s a testament to the talent of the cast and crew at The Archway Theatre that audience members remain on the edges of their seats even as Katherine’s story reaches its inevitable tragic conclusion.

This production presents Katherine Howard as a pawn being used by her uncle, Sir Thomas Howard, the third Duke of Norfolk (played by Tony Bannister), to reassert the Catholic influence at court. Although unsuccessful in the arts of seduction, Katherine inadvertently manages to captivate the King through her tactless honesty.

However, Norfolk’s rival, the detestable Thomas Cranmer (Chris Butler) is determined to disturb the King’s happiness. He’s a fiercely committed protestant, trampling over other people’s lives to further his own agenda.

The cast are all on very good form. Roseanna Sargent and James Collins convey the youthful naivety of the doomed lovers Katherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper effectively, while Rebecca Warnett portrays Lady Jane Rochford as an emotionally complex figure.

At the beginning Lady Rochford seems coldly calculating and manipulative, but she becomes easier to understand (and pity) as her world comes crashing down around her.

However, no character is more complex than the big man himself. David Rankin is an excellent Henry VIII, portraying a monarch who’s past his prime and knows it.

At the beginning of the play he lacks a lust for life – as well as any lust for Anne of Cleves – presenting a man who desperately yearns to be young and healthy again. In one moving scene he flies into a fit of anger, tearing at himself as he laments being trapped inside a “mountain of flesh.”

Katherine seems to offer him a way out, filling him with youthful passion and reminding him of his former self. It’s actually hard not to feel sympathy for Henry, even after the grim conclusion in which Henry, his heart frozen after Katherine’s “betrayal”, becomes the monster we know from the history books.

He’s trapped in his body, but he’s also trapped by his own role as King.

In fact, many of the main characters are imprisoned in some way. Lady Jane Rochford has no real choice when it comes to betraying Katherine while Norfolk has to condemn his niece without question to remain loyal to the monarchy.

William Nicholson’s script explores a range of heavy themes – the treatment of women, the manipulation of the truth and the role of God are touched upon – but there are some good laughs as well.

Mrs Mary Hall, played by Fiona Hall, offers a sidesplitting moment while demonstrating the “marriage noises” made by Katherine and Thomas Culpeper to a flustered Thomas Cranmer.

Anne of Cleves, played by Emma Ladd, gets some great lines too, hilariously failing to understand the mechanics of the conventional wedding night procedure between a new husband and wife.

Director Cathryn Parker cleverly takes advantage of the small venue, with actors often breaking the fourth wall and walking to the stage through the audience. It’s a technique that works particularly well at drawing the viewers into the story. After all, it’s hard not to feel involved in a play when main characters literally brush past you.

Katherine Howard is on at The Archway Theatre until Saturday, November 9. Visit www.archwaytheatre.co.uk.

By Lawrence Smith