This was something I heard about at the very last minute: having missed any mention of it in the press, I came across an entry on Laura Winningham’s indispensable London culture blog, The Winning Review. The prospect of seeing a play about the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, in Tudor costume, at the Tower of London, was simply too good to resist.
Red Rose Chain are a small independent film and theatre company from Suffolk who seem to do a lot of wonderful plays and events (many of them, unfortunately, take place outside London and aren’t so aren’t quite as accessible to those of us without cars). However, based on tonight’s splendid performance and on the rave reviews that Fallen in Love has received, I do hope they’ll think of more London venues in the future. As you know, I’m very keen on small theatre companies and intimate venues, and this particular play really was a match made in heaven. If humanly possible, try to wrangle a ticket for yourself by Sunday. It doesn’t get more site-specific than this: you emerge at the end of the play to find yourself looking out towards Tower Green itself.
I am resolved to have him, whatever may become of me.
Anne Boleyn’s story is currently one of the most familiar episodes in British history, thanks to Philippa Gregory and The Tudors; and yet Joanna Carrick’s play manages the remarkable feat of making it all seem fresh and new. She homes in on the relationship between Anne and her brother George, whom we follow at intervals from the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 – when all seems possible – to the dark days in 1536, as they await their executions on charges of treason and incest.
As a very simple two-hander, the play’s success rests entirely on the actors’ performance and, I’m pleased to say, this production is in very safe hands. Emma Connell is radiant, effervescent and immediately convincing as Anne. She moves effortlessly from a skittish, playful girl, to a young woman thrilled by her power over the king; and then, as time goes on, from an imperious matron, to an isolated and frightened prisoner on the brink of death. Scott Ellis plays George as a boisterous boy who gradually becomes a world-weary man, never failing in his loyalty to his sister and his family. Together they find that they can climb higher than they ever dreamed possible, only to realise the depth of the gulf that looms beneath them.
I imagine that sometimes having just two characters in a play could risk the omission of the wider picture, but here Carrick deftly weaves the changing concerns of the Tudor age into the conversations, so that through Anne and George we come to learn about the political, religious and personal conflicts that mark their path. They gossip about Mary, their simple, unambitious sister who has nevertheless managed to get into the beds of the King of France and the King of England; about Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell; the Spanish queen and her sullen daughter; and, of course, the King himself.
There were only 70 of us in the audience tonight, seated in a circle around the bed which is the only prop and which represents the solitude of the private quarters in which the siblings meet – to tease each other, share their ambitions, offer comfort and, ultimately, to face their fates. To have such a small audience and such a tiny performance space (the actors were never more than six feet away from me) resulted in an astonishingly powerful emotional charge. This is intensified by the fact that the play, which lasts for an hour and a half, has no interval and, in the final stages, speeds up considerably, with the characters snapping from scene to scene as their plans unravel around them. Whether romping around in moments of adolescent silliness, or contemplating the threat to their futures as Anne loses yet another child, the two actors managed to captivate absolutely everyone in the room. It’s a tribute to their naturalism and charisma that by the end, as they mounted their scaffolds to deliver their final words, I found myself with a lump in my throat.
Being so close meant that I was also only an arm’s length away from the gorgeous costumes, which subtly changed during the course of the play to reflect the developing fashions over the years – seen most clearly in the changing hemline of George’s doublet and the gradual bulking out of his silhouette with puffed sleeves, which was all very subtly done. The historical accuracy of the whole package is flagged by Alison Weir, who writes a very laudatory introduction to the programme (which, unlike most programmes, was quite a bargain at £5: it contained the entire playscript). She also noted the sensitivity of the way the siblings’ relationship is depicted; and ‘sensitive’ certainly seems to be the right word. There does seem to be a deeper connection between Anne and George than would be normal between brother and sister, but Carrick never crosses the line into prurient assertion: these are simply two young people who have found in each other a comfort and a bulwark against the shifting sands of the English court, and who have bound their destinies together, for good or ill.
This was very much a last-minute discovery, but I’m thrilled to have had the chance to see it. It was quite a treat to be able to go into the Tower after closing time, accompanied only by a Beefeater, and gain a sense of the immense silence of the place once all the visitors have left for the day. As for the play itself, enormous credit must go to Scott Ellis and Emma Connell, as well as to everyone involved in the production, which runs three times a day. The actors had already given a matinee performance today and, after we left, were readying themselves for a third show at 9:30pm, so I can only imagine how exhausting it must be to undergo such an emotional rollercoaster on a regular basis. Despite the three shows a day, however, there was no sign of boredom, no sense that the actors were simply going through a routine. Everything sparkled with verve and energy. I’m going to be keeping a close eye on Red Rose Chain from now on, in the hope that they come up with more wonderful theatre like this. When they do, I hope I’ll be able to let you know with more notice than I’ve managed this time!