Director Robert Richmond has devised a way to tell the story without too much elaborate pageantry: by presenting the court intrigues through the eyes of Henry's jester, Will Sommers (Louis Butelli). He serves as a master of the revels (or, perhaps, a master of ceremonies as in Cabaret), whether onstage or off: he cues the actors, controls the scenes, and plays several small roles, serving as the metaphorical power behind the king's throne. The addition of this character also allows for the appearance of an unreliable narrator, so the audience can wonder just how much to trust the truth of the story.
Aside from all that cleverness, this is a great, full-blooded drama, set in a world of political betrayal and sycophancy. The stakes in this case may be life and death, but the game of politics hasn't changed that much over the centuries.
People who know Henry (Ian Merrill Peakes) for his six marriages may not realize that his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Naomi Jacobson) had lasted 20 years when he met Anne Boleyn (Karen Peakes). In Shakespeare's version of the story, the king's actionsas he sought a divorce from Katherine and ultimately defied the pope to establish the Church of Englandcould actually be blamed on the machinations of the powerful, widely detested Cardinal Wolsey (Anthony Cochrane).
Ian Merrill Peakes lives up to the legend, presenting a Henry who is supremely confident and certain of his actions, even at times when he should be wary. He is well matched by Jacobson, who conveys majesty even in her moments of despair. (Her accent is uncertain at times, though; Katherine was a Spanish princess, but Jacobson often sounds Irish.) Karen Peakes is a guileless Anne, while Cochrane makes visible Wolsey's constant scheming. Butelli slips into and out of his many roles, but the point is that he is always the jester impersonating members of the court.
Tony Award-winning costume designer William Ivey Long brings the splendor of Henry's court to life through rich brocades, gold embroidery, and jeweled trimmings. Tony Cisek's scenic design is more austere but just as evocative, with wrought-iron latticed screens that suggest a church confessional and a circular balcony rising above the stage.
The play is not the only reason to visit the Folger Shakespeare Library this fall. The Great Hall adjoining the theater currently offers an exhibition of original materials from Henry's reign, including letters, portraits, and rare books and manuscripts.