Boleyn is Back: Theatre review

As a self-confessed obsessive over the history of England’s Kings and Queens, and the Tudors in particular, I was absolutely brimming with excitement at the launch of Historic Royal Palace’s summer campaign ‘Boleyn is Back’ hailing the arrival of the new play The Last Days of Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London. After avidly following the launch through the tweets of @toweroflondon and on Instagram via #boleynisback, I asked my husband very nicely (OK if I’m being honest, absolutely demanded) to go to see the play as a birthday treat.

The play is set on a stage eerily resembling a hastily assembled scaffold on the South Lawn in the shadow of the imposing Norman keep, the White Tower. While doing some research for this blog post, I learnt that this was the site of the long since demolished Tudor building where Anne was kept a prisoner – bringing a greater poignance as the events of over 480 years ago are enacted. There is no seating, but rather audience members sit on the grass, which is OK for 35 minutes and we arrived early enough to get a position in the front row. The stage is empty except for the looming presence of the block, leaving everyone in little doubt of the bloody outcome to the forthcoming proceedings.

 
 The Scaffold - a constant reminder of the tragic ending of Anne's last days

The Scaffold - a constant reminder of the tragic ending of Anne's last days

 

The story is told through a combination of spoken word, music from a string quartet, and beautiful but sorrowful song. An ensemble cast takes on the key roles of the moment, including Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower and Anne’s jailer, his wife Mary Kingston, who jointly served and betrayed the queen by informing on her every word, and Anne’s four alleged adulterers. Much of the script is taken from written accounts of the period and in places uses Anne’s own words as she reiterates her innocence to her husband in letters, during her trial, and finally on the scaffold. Most touchingly is her final speech, forgiving her murdering husband, the King – most likely to ensure her daughter Elizabeth remained in favour. By taking the action out into the audience seated on the lawn you get a sense of what it must have been like to be a spectator at the traitors’ trials, and watching the condemned walk to their deaths.

 
 Anne Boleyn emerging from amongst the crowds

Anne Boleyn emerging from amongst the crowds

 
 
 Pleading her innocence to the King - a pointless task given her fate was already sealed

Pleading her innocence to the King - a pointless task given her fate was already sealed

 
 Anne with her co-accused - the musician Mark Smeaton, Sir Francis Weston, the King's favourite Henry Norris, and her brother George Boleyn

Anne with her co-accused - the musician Mark Smeaton, Sir Francis Weston, the King's favourite Henry Norris, and her brother George Boleyn

 Anne's last confession with Archbishop Fisher. In her last days he acted as messenger, offering Anne the opportunity to save her life if she admitted she was never truly married to the King. She refused, unwilling to damn her immortal soul with a lie

Anne's last confession with Archbishop Fisher. In her last days he acted as messenger, offering Anne the opportunity to save her life if she admitted she was never truly married to the King. She refused, unwilling to damn her immortal soul with a lie

But it is the music that really differentiates this play from any other retelling of the events of May 1536. Through the strings you can feel the lifeblood surging of the characters and as the tempo increases so does the terror and franticness of the accused. And then, as the axe falls on each of the traitorous lovers, one by one each instrument stops playing. The sweet soprano voice of one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting punctuates the atmosphere and wells up deep feelings of sorrow as the play finally reaches its predictable end.

 
 The fall of Anne Boleyn

The fall of Anne Boleyn

 

A short but poignant play imparting not just the events but the feelings of the condemned during those final, terrible 17 days. During her lifetime Anne was a deeply unpopular queen, but by the manner of her death she has become a figure of immense fascination and compassion as the wronged wife, murdered by the tyrant of her husband so he could wed another woman in his relentless pursuit of a male heir.

 
Death Approaches.png
 

Performances are held at 11am and 2pm Friday to Tuesday until 30 August and is included in the price of your entry to The Tower. I highly recommend that you check it out this summer (even the husband said it was amazing and he is much less interested in Tudor history).

Just a final note that on the day we visited the 2pm performance was cancelled due to the hot weather (it must be hell in those Tudor costumes) so check online in advance to ensure you don’t miss out.