It’s rare that one of Shakespeare’s history plays brings the house down, but that’s what happened when Henry VIII was first performed at the original Globe on 29 June 1613, after sparks from a cannon, fired to mark the entrance of Henry in an early scene, set the theatre’s thatched roof alight. The fire spread, razing the entire building to the ground in just a few hours.
Rodrigo Arribas, director of the Spanish production of the play due to be performed at the Globe to Globe festival at the end of May, knows the story well. “Our desire is to burn the Shakespeare Globe theatre again—but in a figurative, not a literal way,” he jokes.
Rakatá, the Madrid-based company responsible for the production, specialise in Spanish Golden Age theatre, staging plays grounded in Spanish history by the likes of Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina. Theirs is the first ever Spanish production of Henry VIII, Shakespeare’s least performed history play in any language. Doubts still linger over its authorship, with many believing John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as house playwright for the King’s Men, had a hand in the writing. Moreover, as the historical period it covers was still relatively recent, the play strikes a cautious note; its culmination is a lavish procession to celebrate the coronation of Anne Boleyn, and the baptism of the future Elizabeth I.
Scenes of pageantry and a propagandist agenda might make Henry VIII seem a less attractive proposition compared with Shakespeare’s better known works, but for Arribas its reputation as a minor play is unjustified. “Obviously it’s impossible to compare Henry VIII with Hamlet or Macbeth, but it still has a lot to say about human nature, such as man’s relationship with power and the way love is used to achieve other objectives, something we see clearly in the relationship between Henry and Catherine of Aragon.”Furthermore, the portrayal of Catherine, Henry’s first wife, is an opportunity to settle an old historical score and add a ”Spanish perspective” to the events of the play. “Usually, the focus is on Henry, but we are trying to shift the focus to Catherine, who, apart from being Queen of England, is an important figure in Spanish history,” he says.”Her parents were Ferdinand V and Isabella I, the catholic monarchs responsible for the reconquista, which brought together the divided territories that are now Spain.”
Arribas informs me that Rakatá backwards spells “atakar”—to attack—though points out that he’s not planning a hatchet job on the monarch most widely taught about in UK schools. “Of course, we’ll be performing it at the Globe in London so we shall have to be very polite about Henry VIII,” he adds, with a hint of mischief. “But we don’t like to do things that do not come from, or are not suggested by, the text. We haven’t changed the play in the sense of trying to support Catherine against Henry. What we are trying to do is support the character of Catherine through the text and the other characters. It’s a subtly done thing, built through her relations with Cardinal Wolsey, Henry, Thomas Cranmer and the other characters. Really, we’re just looking to be the vehicle between Shakespeare’s words and the 21st century audience.”