By Kate Bassett
From the pen of William Nicholson, best known for Shadowlands, comes a strongly crafted new history play in defence of Henry VIII 's fifth wife, Catherine Howard.
In Robin Lefevre's sure-footed period production, Emilia Fox, an outstanding young actress, is a delicately built yet brave Howard and Richard Griffiths gives a fine performance as the ageing, loving, gargantuan king.
Howard was beheaded in 1542 for adultery supposedly committed with her premarital sweetheart Thomas Culpeper, or rather for the "violent presumption" of adultery, as the slippery wording of her prosecution put it.
There is one extant, extraordinarily poignant letter from Catherine to Culpeper , dated after her wedding, in which she wrote, "When I think you shall depart from me again, it makes my heart die." However, there was never concrete evidence of adultery. Howard at her trial confessed she was not a virgin bride and admitted meeting with Culpeper after her marriage, but insisted it was not a sexual liaison.
History books have presumed the young queen, formerly a lady-in- waiting to Anne of Cleves, did play the king false, supposing her foolish or hedonistic by nature.
Nicholson, more interestingly and very convincingly, suggests Howard wasn't stupid. She was, after all, first cousin to Anne Boleyn, executed for extramarital looseness. Fox's Kate is, in fact, an extraordinarily frank, determinedly unflattering courtier, which is what attracts Henry.
We see Howard patriarchally pressured into catching the King's eye by her uncle, the Duke of Norfolk (a casually bullying Denis Quilley). Then a tragic love triangle develops as Howard, while continuing to feel for Culpeper, grows genuinely fond of Henry.
Once married, she plays by the rules but is destroyed by politico- religious rivalries. The reformist Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (an increasingly jaded Jonathan Coy) is opposed to Norfolk's Catholic faction and determined to dig up incriminating evidence.
There is ultimately something workmanlike about Nicholson's play. The scenes between Howard and Culpeper include some corny lines, not helped by Julian Rhind-Tutt's passionless delivery.
Generally, when Nicholson embarks on poetic metaphors, he sounds sub-Shakespearean (though one can't really complain since Shakespeare's own Henry VIII , which focused on Catherine of Aragon, is hardly inspired).
Nicholson's strength is his deftly managed plotting, introducing flickers of ambiguity in Howard's motivation, charting backstairs manoeuvres and shocking betrayals. Designer Liz Ascroft's oak- panelled chamber and Tudor costumes - silk, velvet and fur - are visually sumptuous.
Meanwhile Griffith's Henry is touchingly down-to-earth and Fox's Catherine conducts herself with unflinching simple dignity.
By Nick Curtis
By casting Richard Griffiths as Henry VIII in William Nicholson's agreeable historical romance, director Robin Lefevre must have made a substantial saving on Chichester's body-padding budget. Griffiths is a natural for the mammoth monarch, and delivers a well-rounded, heavyweight performance opposite Emilia Fox's slender but spirited Catherine Howard, the much-younger fifth wife whom Henry loved and executed for adultery.
From the few, disputed facts that are known about Howard, Nicholson constructs a clever fictional edifice that casts both her and Henry as doomed lovers and victims of circumstance. If anything, his play is too well-crafted, tying up the royal romance and the religious and political situation of Tudor England into a neat package. The dialogue also sounds oddly modern, as if Nicholson and Lefevre are acknowledging that any historical play will be tinged by contemporary attitudes.
Most of us would think that Henry - ill, obese and desperate for an heir at 50 - married Catherine because outside every slim young woman there's a fat old man trying to get in. But Nicholson makes Henry a more complex beast than the venal villain of popular legend. As played by Griffiths, he is a weary figure, worn down by the decline of his body, the demands of his role, and the sycophancy of courtiers who ignore the stench of his gangrenous leg.
Even though Catherine is pimped to the King for political reasons by her Catholic uncle, the Duke of Norfolk, Henry falls for her because her absolute candour allows her to address him as a man rather than a monarch. In one of Nicholson's cleverest dramatic strokes, it is this same monosyllabic frankness that condemns Catherine when the scheming Archbishop Cranmer unearths her prenuptial romance with the young courtier Thomas Culpeper.
Though Nicholson allows that Catherine had been around the block a few times before her marriage, he gallantly defends her against the charges of adultery that would eventually send her to another, more lethal block. In the wooing scenes, Fox stands still and imperious as a statue, while Griffiths lumbers around her, reeling off beautifully written speeches about the burdens of his body and his birth. Sometimes, though, Nicholson's desire to explain gets the better of him, as when Catherine delivers a stinging address about the lousy deal women get in Tudor England. Similarly, his weakness for crowd- pleasing comedy means that we see Henry brandishing sheets stained with "nocturnal emissions" as proof that his fourth marriage was unconsummated, and listen to a maid faking a noisy orgasm when describing Catherine's trysts with Culpeper to Cranmer.
Liz Ascroft's Tudor designs are rather dull and some of her costumes make Griffiths look like a glum Tweedledum who's lost his Tweedledee. Jonathan Coy's woolly Cranmer is no match for Denis Quilley's ferocious Norfolk, while the performances of Frances Tomelty and Julian Rhind-Tutt as Catherine's confidante and lover vary wildly in quality. Despite such flaws, the central relationship remains both convincing and quietly moving.
Griffiths bears most of the weight of Nicholson's elegant words, but Fox is impressive too in her steady self-possession.
Lefevre plays down the wedding and the trial, the two scenes that could turn into flabby pageantry.
His production, though lumpy in places, captures the tone of Nicholson's script, concentrating on the human story at the centre of all the historical detail. This pleasing, old-fashioned play ends on a diminuendo, with Griffiths's gutted Henry musing on his loss while Fox's Catherine is silhouetted behind, kneeling for the axeman: those who married the fat king stood a slim chance of surviving.
Last Revised: 02 Jan 2015