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PAWTUCKET, R.I. — After all the books and movies, what’s left to say about Anne Boleyn?
Not a whole lot, really, though British playwright Howard Brenton stirs the historical pot with gusto in “Anne Boleyn,’’ now receiving its US premiere in an energetic but scattershot production at the Gamm Theatre, directed by Rachel Walshe.
Undergirding the play, which premiered in London in 2010 at Shakespeare’s Globe, is the not terribly new notion that religion is essentially another branch of politics.
As we watch the jockeying for power, including the sexual kind, in the courts of kings Henry VIII and James I, Brenton also reminds us that theology, the structure of religious institutions, and even the very nature of belief often owe more to individual human desire than to divine inspiration.
Similar concepts were woven throughout Brenton’s “Paul,’’ an elaborately revisionist take on the origins of Christianity that also received its American premiere at the Gamm, two years ago. The playwright is certainly to be admired for his willingness to wrestle with ideas. But the dramatic focus of “Anne Boleyn’’ is sometimes a casualty of that wrestling match; the play is marred by momentum-draining digressions and sudden bursts of speechifying.
In the title role, Madeleine Lambert gives a forceful performance — at times too forceful. Lambert has chosen, or been guided by director Walshe, to play Anne at an unremittingly high volume. That sustained pitch gives the protagonist a querulous, one-note quality, whether Anne is bantering with Henry (Steve Kidd) on Jessica Hill’s dark-green-and-gold set, clashing with Cardinal Wolsey (Tom Gleadow), forging a short-lived alliance with Thomas Cromwell (Jim O’Brien), or seeking the approval of Protestant reformer William Tyndale (Joe Short).
Anne’s strong will is apparent in Lambert’s portrayal; we believe it when Henry asks Anne what role she is playing in a masque and she replies: “I am Perseverance.’’ But we seldom sense the intricate workings of a mind that would dare try to outwit a king, much less a mercurial and bloody-minded monarch like Henry.
Kidd hints at that lethality but wisely does not overplay it. His Henry has avid eyes and a wide smile that grow still wider and more avid when he spies Anne. “You can’t say no to him, Anne,’’ Lady Rochford (Casey Seymour Kim, skillful as ever) warns her. Anne’s response is telling: “Maybe not, but there are many ways of saying yes.’’
Indeed, she does not deliver her yes until Henry has gone to great lengths to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he can make Anne the queen of England. We know the result from the history books: The pope excommunicates Henry, a split with Rome ensues, and Henry wrests control of the Church of England, with lasting ramifications for organized religion.
That’s where James I comes in. The play shifts back and forth in time, and also in tone, from Anne and Henry’s ill-starred union to the early 17th century, when James occupies the British throne. James, whose name will soon adorn a new translation of the Bible, is consumed with curiosity about every facet of the woman who triggered all that religious upheaval so many decades earlier.
Tony Estrella, the Gamm’s multitalented artistic director, delivers a juicily entertaining performance as James, Scottish burr and all. But the comedy of his scenes, including one in Act 2 that finds him wearing Anne’s coronation dress, sits uneasily next to the remorseless unfolding of the young queen’s grim fate: She proves unable to bear Henry a son, has a miscarriage, and is eventually hauled away for execution. For all her attempts to discern God’s word, the last word belongs to those political forces who saw Anne as a threat and who had only one idea: to hold on to their power.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.