Hello, my name is Desperately Seeking Cymbeline and my greatest nightmare is Henry VIII. Not the man himself, although let’s face it he is the stuff of the worst, cheese-and-chocolate fever dreams that you ever woke up from screaming, but the play.
The reason for this? Well not only is it the show which burnt down the original Globe Theatre, thanks to its use of cannon fire*, it’s also basically never performed. The RSC has put it on once in the last ten years (and that nearly ten years ago – in 2006). The Globe had performed it twice in its entire history** once in Catalan as part of the Globe-to-Globe season, and once in 2010 with Dominic Rowan as the eponymous king (and given how young he still looked in Measure for Measure he must have been a positive baby at the time).
Apparently the Globe connection means the play is seen as jinxed. It’s also widely thought to be a collaboration with John Fletcher, and somewhat unevenly written as a consequence. Both of these may help explain why it is so rarely performed. And then there’s the fact that, unlike basically all the other history plays, there aren’t any battle scenes – it’s all set at court. Which might make it a bit less appealing to the more flamboyant of theatrical directors. The BBC – naturally – did a very highly regarded film version in 1979***, filmed in genuine Tudor castles including Hever Castle which was Anne Boleyn’s home, and showcasing particularly the talents of Timothy West as Cardinal Wolsey and Claire Bloom as Catherine of Aragon. I might try to get my hands on it.
Having just missed the play’s 400th anniversary (not that that seems to have counted for much in terms of productions) I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for a production – but not necessarily holding my breath…
* I talked about it here, and while I am still impressed with the low injury count, more and more I am simply perplexed about how they got a cannon into the roof in the first place. Those things are heavy, and the Globe’s stairways are twisty. Even worse than getting a sofa into an upstairs flat…
** To be fair, if it were down to me I’d probably be thinking “Shall we put on the play that burned down our namesake and predecessor? No, let’s give it a miss this year” too.
*** So only 36 years ago then.