By Ralph Goldswain
It’s easy to say, as the Globe’s publicity for this production does, that the play was written by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher “in collaboration with Hannah Khalil.”
But four centuries distance between Ms Khalil and the other two writers makes the notion of a collaboration absurd. Historical context aside, the other two are long dead, so could not have had anything to say about her contribution – no feedback, no suggestions – allowing her to do whatever she wanted to with their text.
In any case, even a collaboration between the two original writers was difficult. Shakespeare was in retirement in Stratford, two day’s ride from London, during the time that this play was being written and his friend and protégé, John Fletcher, was very busy running the Kings Men and The Globe in his place. There was no internet, no Zoom, and yet they were doing it, but in highly unfavourable circumstances.
The logistical difficulties made for a below-standard text but also, in choosing to write about Henry VIII Fletcher was hunting too close to home. It was a politically dangerous project. Unlike Shakespeare’s great history dramas, set far in the past, Fletcher, for some inexplicable reason, chose to write about the tyrannical father of the recently late great Queen. That meant the mirror that Shakespeare held up to life – his objective observation of life – was distorted by the dangers of still active political tensions, and the play was a failure, suffering the fate of other sub-standard Jacobean plays. It has been rarely performed and if it hadn’t been associated with Shakespeare it may have been placed in the same category as hundreds of Jacobean plays never performed in subsequent centuries. It’s surprising that Shakespeare agreed to do it.
But the two great writers were at least responding to the era in which they both lived, and which is like a different galaxy to us. Hannah Khalil’s contribution is heavily seasoned by the context of her own era and in years to come, when we look back at 2022 and study the art and literature of that time we will probably see a huge compensatory drive towards everything feminine. That will pass, and future eras will have their own preoccupations. Ms Khalil’s brief from the Globe was “to sculpt the play into an exploration of the female experience in this world,” thus taking the text right out of its context.
So how did she do?
Her part in the “collaboration” was to tweak the language to swerve the play in the direction of her world view and to add another female character. She told her mother that she wasn’t going to try and write new, iambic pentameter dialogue, but why not? She couldn’t have done worse than Fletcher, who never mastered the technique perfected by Marlowe and Shakespeare – the delivery of poetic magic that imitated everyday speech. That’s how it’s easy to see which bits were written by each of the two writers respectively. Fletcher didn’t really have the knack: Hannah Khalil may have been better at it.
So instead of writing new dialogue, Ms Khalil pinches bits and pieces from Shakespeare’s other plays and poems and, of course, not having been written from her own experience and emotions, they don’t really work when shoved into the mouths of characters from a completely different play. That’s particularly so when she includes some of Shakespeare’s most famous lines like “uneasy is the head that wears the crown” and “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.” They jar like a sudden electric shock.
Her creation of a new character, Katherine’s daughter, Mary, is odd. It should be clear to her why the two writers did not bring the Catholic Bloody Mary into their drama. She was politically toxic and the families of Jacobean audiences would still be suffering the wounds of her reign, many having relatives who had been burnt at the stake, while she would still have had some supporters. So, in a real collaboration Ms Khalil would not have been allowed to do that. But having done it, the question is why. It’s hard to see what the character adds. Mary has no dramatic function and wanders about, contributing to a wayward kind of commentary with the help of two peasants sitting on blow-up swimming pool armchairs.
What is good about this production, though?
It is a play with two stories – the story of masculine power and political manipulation and the story of two women and a baby girl. In tampering a bit with the women’s language and roles she highlights their story. The already strong, courageous Queen Katherine, magnificently played by Bea Segura, becomes the beating heart of this version of the play. Janet Etuk Anne Boleyn (Bullen here) could have been better realised in this aspect of the story. However, the theme of female suffering is very clear.
What works well is the lighthearted comedy. As part of the feminist theme the men are shown, by a range of comic effects, to be pathetic. Henry, played superbly by Adam Gillen, in particular, is pathetic. The slightly-built physical opposite of the iconic image of the historical Henry VIII, he whines and whinges like a teenage loser, sulking when the expected baby turns out to be a girl and behaves badly in the face of Anne’s goading him with a display of pink, including a large shiny pink pram, impetuously bursting the celebratory pink balloons. He is also the Wizard of Oz, a small man hiding behind the curtain of rank, sexually obsessed but basically impotent, unable to father a male child, compensating with sex toys – a strap on and giant golden blow-up genitals. A lot of fun but definitely a lot of misandry too.
What makes this visit to the Globe worthwhile, however, is the music. Maimuna Memon is without doubt the star of the production. Her songs are superb, and beautifully sung by Genevieve Dawson and Natasha Cottriall, who also plays Mary. One’s instinct is to approach the Globe and offer a further collaboration with Fletcher, Shakespeare, Khalil and Memon in “All is True – the Musical.” Less dialogue, more music, and a few more songs by Ms Memon, and Bob’s your uncle (or aunt, rather!) – a new West End style musical – a new hit for The Globe.
Have you seen this play yourself? We’d love to hear what you thought of it in the comments section below!