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Head: The Musical by Debbie Patterson (2006)

July 13, 2014

This peculiar musical has a book which mostly focuses on the sort of things you’d expect a twenty-first century Anne story to focus on: women as second-class citizens valued only for their wombs, a snarky female character who speaks truth to power (Anne’s fool is the one who does that in this case), criticism of the Madonna/whore complex, and Thomas Cranmer as a heroic beleaguered soul who tries a lot harder to save Anne than the original seems to have done. Interspersed with the dialogue, however, are lots of roving puns (“though [Smeaton] holds the rhythm, he forgets his place”) and songs of the sort that W.S. Gilbert or – looking a little lower down – Conway Edwardes might have written if he’d been able to make overt sex jokes. Thus it is that we find Henry VIII singing that “The sexiest thing, without a doubt / Is a girl who won’t put out” and Jane Seymour responding that

If you’ve set your hungry heart on a King,
Don’t give in till he gives you a ring.
If he begs you to go down,
Say “No head until my head is sporting a crown.”

Heightening the alt-universe nineteenth-century air of this musical are the twin facts of Thomas Cromwell’s total disappearance, and the transference of guilt for Anne’s fate onto the shoulders of a woman who had little to nothing to do with it. You’re thinking it’s Lady Rochford, right? Wrong, actually! In a development which I have never seen before, the villainess is actually Lady Kingston. Yes, that one – Sir William Kingston’s wife, and known to Anne enthusiasts as one of the women who guarded her in the Tower and whom Anne requested to convey her apologies to Lady Mary. That’s about it, but here she’s been promoted to the conniving aunt of Jane Seymour and resentful former mistress of Henry VIII who decides to wreak revenge on Anne on behalf of both her own family and the late Catherine of Aragon.

We open in what’s presumably February of 1536 – we’re told that Anne has just finished recovering from her miscarriage, which took place at the end of January of that year. A chorus of ladies and gentlemen are singing an optimistic song on the theme of “The Most Happy.”

But the most happy lady’s the lady’s who’s queen,
The envy of courtiers, every girl’s dream:
Radiant, brilliant, the star of the land!
The most happy lady is Anne!

The stage directions that follow are “ANNE and HENRY enter. They are not happy.” Henry proceeds to dump Anne in her chair with minimal courtesy while the chorus twitters on about how loving and happy they are, and soon after we see Lady Kingston and her niece Jane Seymour conferring. Henry is obviously casting an eye on Jane, but Lady Kingston tells her that she’ll dance with the king first, in order to prepare the ground for Jane, and Jane agrees.

Lady Kingston, as it turns out, likes to prepare her ground with a sledgehammer. After sympathizing with Henry over Anne’s miscarriage – “Poor Jane has been inconsolable since your loss. She’s quite anxious to be a mother herself” – Lady Kingston, over the course of one dance, proceeds from dropping hints about how Mark Smeaton is looking at Anne, to speculation about whether the miscarried baby was actually “of your blood” (it was deformed, after all) to unwilling disclosure of the fact that Anne has been rumoured to be with several court gentleman … only at this point does Henry remember that he’s Henry VIII and shout “Lies! You believe treasonous lies! … I am not a cuckold. Do you see horns upon my brow?” Lady Kingston says that Jesus had a crown of thorns on his head but that didn’t reflect on him, but rather on the people who mistreated him, and besides, if the queen is mistreating Henry, wouldn’t that ultimately leave him free to marry someone else and have sons? “You would be our savior.” Ten seconds later Henry is saying he’ll launch an investigation and ten seconds later after that he’s saying that once evidence is found, Anne will be imprisoned and Lady Kingston will have to report what she says and does, so it can be entered into evidence. “Her guilt will be beyond all doubt,” says Henry. I realize that dramatic conventions require condensing long and meandering processes into something shorter and higher-contrast, but even so – that’s an awful lot to fit into one dance. Henry then goes off the dance with Jane Seymour (“She’ll give her husband lovely babies” says Lady Kingston, with her typical subtlety) and Anne, after being criticized by Henry for being too unfeminine – “No wonder she cannot give us a son; she hoards her manly fortitude for her own use” — departs in sad dignity, accompanied only by her female fool.

It looks like she may not have that company much longer, though – soon enough, the fool appears, baggage in hand, clearly on the brink of departure. She runs into Mark Smeaton, who’s thrilled at having been “summoned by his majesty” (note the total absence of Cromwell) and who clearly thinks he’s on the verge of a life-changing event, which of course he is — though of course he thinks he’ll get a promotion instead of a one-way ticket to the Undiscovered Country. The Fool is more perceptive, and once she’s alone she tells us all about it in song.

Like rats from a sinking ship
I’ve watched them all scurry off to safety.
I’m the only one who hasn’t turned tail,
It’s time I faced the reality:
That the queen’s not long for her crown,
There are some who would bring her down,
And no one knows which way the tree will fall.
Now it seems my choice is a simple one,
Stand my ground or turn and run.
Safety waits outside that door, so why do I stall?

As she’s stalling, she hears Anne calling for her. Anne is bereft – all of her gentlewomen have “fled”, Smeaton is gone as well, and she knows something is wrong and wants someone to accompany her to the chapel for prayer. On seeing the fool with her bags packed, she asks if she knows what’s going on. No, says the fool, “but if I stay I will find out. In such cases the wise embrace ignorance and fly.” Anne, not having that option, piteously begs the fool to stay – “I need you.” Against her better judgement, the fool does stay and within a minute or two is going off to prison with the newly-arrested Anne, describing the prison as being the real chapel, because “more honest prayers have been uttered in that place than in all the great churches of Rome.”

Scene shift to William Kingston and Lady Kingston, who are ostensibly fighting over who Anne’s other attendant should be (Lady Shelton isn’t available this time, apparently) but really just giving Lady Kingston another chance to show us what a cow she is. She hates Anne (“one who has demeaned herself in a most unnatural way”) she hates her husband (“so humbling a marriage” – Kingston responds that the fifteen years they’ve been married “feels like fifty”) and most of all she hates running across even the tiniest impediment to the fulfillment of her scheming: “I feel about as giddy as a maid on her wedding day / I shall crow to the world, `I’ve won!'” Finally she decides that Anne’s other attendant should be Mistress Stoner, a dimwitted but goodhearted maid-of-all-work who does all the scutwork around the tower (and there’s a lot of cleaning up to do, especially after a particularly vigorous torture session). Mistress Stoner arrives, awed at being attendant on the queen, however disgraced, and Lady Kingston gets down to the more enjoyable work of informing Anne of the charges against her, telling her about all the men who have been arrested, calling her a whore, adulteress and strumpet, mockingly urging her to confess before Smeaton is put to torture, and slapping the fool around for good measure. Kingston himself regards the scene with gentlemanly distaste, and after he offers to convey a message to the king for Anne, he’s visibly moved by her song.

Like the flower who turns her face only to the sun,
Like the river that flows faithfully to the sea,
Like the solid and unshakable earth beneath your feet
Am I guilty of inconstancy.
…. Oh tell me wherein I’ve offended your grace?
What I’ve done or I’ve failed to do?
By God in heaven above me I swear
My love to you is true.

Lest he start thinking dangerous thoughts about her potential innocence, Lady Kingston is at his elbow to remind him that he doesn’t want word of his sympathies for “the traitress” to get to the king, especially as Lady Kingston is “one of his closest advisors.” Is she really or is she just deluded? Considering what she was able to accomplish in the course of one song, I’m not sure the latter is completely true. Anyway, Kingston will be able to deliver Anne’s message along with Smeaton’s confession, which Lady Kingston expects will be made shortly since he’s about to be tortured – “I daresay that lovesick troubadour won’t last.” Mistress Stoner is dispatched to clean up the mess, which includes cleaning up Smeaton as well and trying to console him for his unwilling confession. “There was naught you could do, love, but suffer and lie. And you did both bravely, and with all your heart. Here, take a drop of comfort.” After she drugs him to sleep she sings a lullaby about how he’ll soon be safe asleep underground.

Sweet angels are gathering above you
To welcome a heart so pure.
And the flowers will grow
So the whole world will know
That you did your best to be brave and strong.
From the moment of your birth,
Til you’re cradled in the earth,
All we can do is hold on.

Both of them fall asleep, and the stage clears for a very different tete-a-tete: Jane Seymour and Lady Kingston meeting so they can update each other. “Will I be queen?” asks Jane, and Lady Kingston smugly announces that she’s holding a confession from one of Anne’s lovers. “God be praised! And may her soul find peace in heaven,” says Jane, before Lady Kingston starts getting into the real meat of the conversation – namely, what Jane should do after she becomes queen. The song’s title, “Kill The Brat” gives a sufficient idea of its contents; Jane should sow doubts in Henry’s mind about the validity of his marriage to Anne so that Elizabeth can be bastardized, and after that it should be easy to get her out of the way. The song is all the more disturbing for having the sort of joint lyrics you never see outside of Gilbert and Sullivan revivals:

BOTH: Though {you/I} might fear {you’re/I’m} being unkind
Kill the brat for {your/my} own peace of mind.

The overall effect is one of reading an attempt at an epic tragedy written in limerick verses. Disconcerting and unsettling, yes, but the form is so distracting that it’s impossible to take the content seriously.

Enter Henry, at which the song abruptly stops and Lady Kingston conveys the glad news of Smeaton’s confession – “the musician was persuaded to sing,” she says, in a line that really should have gone to the Fool. She promptly exits and leaves Jane to the not-too-difficult task of telling Henry that for his own sake, he should see about getting his marriage to Anne annulled – “untie you knit under the influence of witchcraft,” she says, in what’s the first and last reference to witchcraft in the musical, and when Henry says that Anne is going to die anyway, Jane protests that “the ill-gotten child will remain a princess,” and clearly that could lead to political complications. Anxious to get under Jane’s virtuous skirts, Henry summons Cranmer, who comes under the mistaken impression that Henry is acting in good faith, and he attempts to plead Anne’s cause. “I shall speak to the men of your council urging them to find her innocent.” Henry, after evincing virtuous shock that anyone should try and sway the council from using their own judgement, shows Cranmer Smeaton’s confession and then as Cranmer continues to defend Anne, starts wondering theatrically if Cranmer himself might have lain with her, since he takes her part so much. Cranmer walks it back a little and says that the whole situation is very troubling, and Henry puts in his order for an annulment, certain that Anne will tell Cranmer something that will furnish sufficient grounds. Cranmer leaves, and Henry tells a servant to send for the Swordsman of Calais, since he’ll need a few days for travelling and they can’t have Anne sitting around too long after the trial. The trial itself takes place during “The Women’s Song” in which each woman in the cast (including Lady Kingston, one assumes) stands isolated in her own spotlight and sings about what Anne’s really guilty of.

Like Eve, the mother of us all
Whose cleverness is called “the fall”,
We’re all judged by what our bodies can or can’t achieve
If ever we are reckoned
By intelligence it’s second,
Our brains won’t be the legacy we leave.

…. We must have babies, so the species will survive.
We must justify our right to stay alive.
Until we do we’re not worth the trouble our bodies cause.
Oh we are morally weak, though lovely, and tragically flawed.

“GUILTY!” shout the men, and we’ve reached intermission.

The curtain rises again and Lady Kingston is happily gloating to both her husband and Mistress Stoner about how Anne has been stripped of all titles and is “not your majesty” any more, and that the Sword of Calais has been sent for. (Kingston tries to console her secretly by telling her how painless it is). After a bit of riffing on the Swordsman of Calais’ popularity by the Fool and Mistress Stoner, Cranmer arrives (“Such a prestigious visitor for a commoner like Mistress Anne,” snarks Lady Kingston) and Anne and the Fool are left with him for awhile so Anne can confess. “I am sent here,” says Cranmer, “To betray our friendship, your honour, and my integrity,” in other words to find grounds to annul her marriage. He fears the king’s anger but also hates to ask Anne to conspire in her own further undoing. “Tell me what you would have me say to the king. I shall bargain for your life for you.” Anne is pleased at that prospect – there’s a Protestant convent in Antwerp (unofficially Protestant, one assumes) and she knows she could become a nun there, “and when he is dead I will return.” She then cites Henry’s affair with her sister Mary as grounds for an annulment based on consanguinity, “a trespass of the bounds of affinity set out in Leviticus.” Oddly, Cranmer doesn’t buy it. “It will not suffice.” “But he clearly loved her,” says Anne. “Love is not enough,” replies Cranmer, who also mentions that Mary’s affair with Henry ended long before he married Anne – which makes absolutely no sense, since it’s not as if there was a statute of limitations on consanguinity, or an emotional requirement, for that matter. All that’s required is that Anne and Mary were sisters and that Henry slept with Mary at least once – at what time, and with what feelings, would be irrelevant. Anyway, he has to press Anne further (while the Fool makes a lot of not-so-veiled comments about how Henry’s impotence would be good grounds for annulment) and finally Anne breaks down and admits that long ago, she lied about her relationship with Henry Percy – she “promised herself” to him, but when she married the King, she swore that she had never been contracted to any man before. “What Must You Think Of Me?” sings Anne to Cranmer “Now that you know what I am / I have betrayed my own heart, feigning I’ve played my part ….” In reply, Cranmer tells her

I would rather take an infant from his mother
And leave him for the ravens of the heath
Than to profane the sanctity of love’s first flower
By bearing it like battle spoils to love’s own thief
…. What must you think of me?
I’ve known you so many years
Now you fear
I would abandon you,
When I should by mine honour be true?

Cranmer is torn; he thinks that handing Henry a nice juicy grounds for annulment like the Percy commitment will make him likelier to let Anne go to Antwerp, but at the same time he doesn’t want to betray her. “Tell him what you need to say,” says Anne, leaving it up to Cranmer’s less than steely spine, and he leaves. Anne is optimistic about Antwerp and tells the Fool to help her get ready, but it transpires that the Fool has been so annoying to Lady Kingston that she won’t let her leave the Tower (apparently she has the authority to do that). Lady Kingston doesn’t mind too much if Anne goes to Antwerp, though. “Oh, how it would thrill my heart to see you on hands and knees humbly scrubbing the stone step of the abbey!” In the meantime, however, she trusts that Anne will want to see the executions of her five accused lovers. Anne declines, and Lady Kingston flounces out. “Start praying, nun.”

Meanwhile, Henry is praying to Jane in quite another sense. “My thoughts of you are holy,” he tells her as he paces up and down, waiting for Cranmer. “Pertaining to a hole?” asks Jane, in another line that would have worked better for the Fool than a supposedly idiotic puppet of a gentlewoman. Henry then passes the time by singing about the attractions of “A Girl Who Won’t Put Out” (“If a maid gives in too easily / It makes me feel quite queasily”) and by the time Cranmer arrives he’s on the brink of several kinds of explosion. Cranmer hems and haws a bit about how Her Grace couldn’t supply any set of grounds but one – “the king’s lack of manly vigour, and subsequent failure to perform his function as a husband.” “I’ll have your head!” screams Henry, at which Cranmer says merely that his body and soul are Henry’s to command. Henry demands to know about Percy – he always suspected something there – but Cranmer denies any confessions on that score, so Henry finally exercises his prerogative as Supreme Head of the Church: “The marriage shall be nullified without grounds,” he says, and Cranmer is dismissed and sent home under house arrest, not to go out again until Anne is dead.

Meanwhile, Mistress Stoner and Lady Kingston have just returned from watching the five men’s executions, and while Lady Kingston is in her usual form (“Imagine, standing at the gates facing St. Peter, drenched in the blood of everyone who ever dared to love you. I reap such joy thinking about it”) Mistress Stoner is more sympathetic, not that that’s much of an accomplishment. “No one deserves to die, Lady, but we all do,” she says, and scolds the Fool for morbidly observing to Anne “What do you have to live for? You love no one, take joy in nothing …. You had life’s treasures laid out before you yet you took no delight. Hoarding future happiness you squandered present joy, and now you die in misery …. She will approach her death as she approached life: in fear and dread, with a bellyful of resentment consuming her, in blind ignorance to the sacrifice of the ones who truly loved her. Who continue, despite all provocation, to love her!” The one who still loves her is, of course, the Fool. She’s interrupted by the arrival of an officer announcing “Forgive me, Lady, I regret I must lead you to your death.” However, the lady he’s leading to death is not Anne but the Fool, whose death has been ordered by Lady Kingston – “She’s the one put this charge of insubordination on you.” Damn, even Lady Rochford has never been able to legally order someone’s execution by fiat. Off goes the Fool, giving Anne one last confidence and telling the officer that she’ll give the spectators a good show, and Anne cries to Mistress Stoner that the Fool was right: “I am what she says I am. A stranger to my own heart: bitter and joyless. I never loved her. I never loved my husband nor my child. I never loved.”

Mistress Stoner tries to console her:

When I see a man about to die, no matter what vile thing he’s done, if he dies with grace he looks to me like Jesus at his final moment, and oh, I just fall in love with our saviour all over again! A man who could look through the windows of your eyes to the stains on your soul and still say “I love you.”

She reprises her lullaby, this time cradling Anne, and as the scene fades out we once again see Henry and Jane. “They attempt to play their old game of temptation/flirtation, but it’s getting old and somewhat bitter,” the stage directions tell us, and it’s just in the nick of time, before a real quarrel starts, that Cranmer re-enters. He’s been summoned by Henry for a purpose which he fails to guess, probably deliberately. After grovelling to Henry for a bit about his “vision and leadership” he puts on a show of being thrilled to learn that Henry and Jane will soon be married, and assists them in taking vows de futuro. Henry and Jane exeunt to consummate said vows, and Cranmer sings of his own disgust with himself: “I have demeaned my soul’s most precious treasure, / Slave to my king, but stranger to my God.”

Jane and Henry enter shortly thereafter, both unhappy. “Now I confess I feel like I’ve somehow been cheated,” Jane’s song begins, and afterwards Henry lets us know that “I confess I hate this desperate beastly act.” Both agree that “For power I have sacrificed my soul / I don’t think even God can make me whole.”

At last Anne makes her confession.

Now I confess I failed at everything I tried
For fruitless honours I cheated and lied
I failed to trust in providence divine,
But like a desp’rate beggar clung to what was mine.
Despising God’s creation with each breath,
Bereft of grace I now must face my death.
I hate myself, my sallow, bloodstained soul:
And though I don’t deserve it,
I don’t deserve it but I beg you if you can,
For the nothing that I am,
Let me know
What it feels like to be whole.

Mistress Stoner helps Anne make a few last arrangements (keeping your hair pinned up will make for a cleaner blow) and Anne walks to the scaffold and gives her final speech, unaltered. She signals the swordsman, he lifts his sword – and time freezes. Across time, Anne addresses the audience. She can see everything at once, she says – all the vents of her life, all the people who came before her and the ones who will follow her.

Look at you! All you beautiful people, shining with love, nursing secret regrets, holding back, saving something, giving too much, feeling foolish, giving up, trying again, filled with desire, waiting for tomorrow … Hello, sweet people. Your time is short. There is only now. This moment. You must be very brave.


SEX OR POLITICS? Sex. Politics are barely a blip on the screen here – instead we see Lady Kingston and Jane Seymour conspiring to humiliate Anne via accusations of sexual misconduct, which Lady Kingston dreams up to get revenge for either her own dumping by Henry years earlier or Anne’s treatment of Catherine of Aragon – it’s hard to tell which.

WHEN BORN? Not stated.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy – possibly. Certainly he loved her, as the Fool tells Cranmer after Anne’s trial is over. Anne refuses to believe it, pointing out that Percy “pronounced her guilt” but the Fool says that Percy asked for her forgiveness since he didn’t have much of a choice. Anne then confesses that she and Percy had “pledged themselves to one another” before they were separated by Henry, and that she later denied the fact to Cranmer. “There we stood before you, wearing our masks of piety, vowing ignorance of any impediment to our marriage. I swore against my heart – against God – that I had never sworn myself to any man. But I lied, Thomas, I lied before God!” If the “pledge” was enough to be a real impediment by itself, they might have made vows de praesenti. After Anne hears of Percy’s apology, she asks Cranmer to give him a ring, but Cranmer says that after his collapse in court, “he did not recover his spirit.” Anne interprets this to mean that he’s dead, and he may be, but since Cranmer can be economical with the truth and we never see Percy ourselves, this isn’t absolutely certain.

Thomas Wyatt is mentioned glancingly as a friend and ally of Anne’s – early on in her imprisonment she tries to send a ring and message to him via the Fool, which never make it out of the room (Lady Kingston intercepts them and cackles about how Anne must be sneaking messages to her lover, as you will not be surprised to learn).

THE QUEEN’S BEES None are ever seen, except for Jane Seymour, and she and Anne only share one scene (the opening one) and never interact, although later Anne describes her as an “insipid puppet.” The supportive role usually taken by Margaret Wyatt or someone similar is instead allotted to …

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR, Anne’s female fool, called Fool throughout most of the play but whose name is eventually revealed to be Anne as well. In the classic tradition of fools, she makes a lot of really terrible puns and in the end gives it to Anne straight; she’s never really lived, never really loved, she’s spent her whole life frightened; at the very least, she can leave it with her dignity intact. This is also what the Fool does, when she’s arrested for insubordination at the behest of Lady Kingston (!) and taken off to be hanged, thus joining the ghostly company of Danahan, Meg Tierney, and “Margaret” in The Spanish Chronicle – all of them maids supposedly executed along with Anne, none of them real.

Mistress Stoner really did attend Anne (and report what she said) when she was in the Tower. Here she’s a general dogsbody, comforting Mark Smeaton after he’s been tortured (“All we can do is hold on”) and saying flatfooted but well-meant words of comfort. She’s got a broad streak of Monty Python to her: “Bless my soul, there’ll be laundry!” she cries upon hearing that Mark Smeaton is due for torture, and she has a duet with the Fool about the dashing and sexy Swordsman of Calais.

How can a heartless assassin
Fill my body with such passion?
How can aversion transform into lust?

…. Don’t question, just
Surrender to it now and trust.

What a pleasure to be taken by the swordsman of Calais!
With his shining gleaming length of tempered steel.
No woman would be tempted to go any other way
If her status could contrive her such a deal.

Despite the swordsman’s bad boy appeal, Mistress Stoner mentions that she always looks away at the actual moment of beheading (as opposed to Lady Kingston, who considers it great cheap entertainment).

THE PROPHECY None notable. The characters all make jaundiced but perfectly reasonable predictions about the fates of their enemies but nobody evinces second sight, not even the Fool. Anne comments on her own plan to go to Antwerp without Elizabeth “If I am to live that is what must be done. She’s only a girl, what good is she? She’d never rule England.”

IT’S A GIRL! We never see Elizabeth, but she’s referenced several times – Lady Kingston and Jane Seymour’s duet “Kill The Brat” is about their plans to dispose of Elizabeth once Anne is gone.

Once the child is a bastard her secret execution
Will easily be brought to its conclusion.
Just picture the wee thing hoisted on a spear!
Or strangled or poisoned it makes me have to cheer:
Kill the brat I say!
Kill the brat I say!

The miscarried baby of 1536 is, in the classic Retha Warnicke tradition, deformed. “I spoke with the gravedigger who buried the thing,” Lady Kingston tells Henry. “`Scarcely human,’ he said.” Henry tells her to “test not [his] charity” but doesn’t contradict her.


FAMILY AFFAIRS Anne’s family is mentioned a number of times but never seen directly. George Boleyn’s arrest and death are all lamented, and Mary is mentioned in the context of annulment – Anne offers Mary’s affair with Henry as possible grounds for annulment, not wanting to reveal that she herself and Percy had actually been promised to each other. Lady Kingston describes Anne’s father as having “pandered his daughters to the king” and Mary’s children as “bastards”, and although she is of course a biased witness, neither Anne nor the Fool contradict her assessments of them.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? No. Apparently Lady Kingston did with the King, though, back before she was Lady Kingston – leading the Fool to call her “Lady King’s-Cunt” which is fairly courageous considering that in this universe Lady Kingston apparently has the power to unilaterally order a commoner’s death.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE The fool gets some excellent lines; she’s always turning people’s words back on them and punning in a way that can be maddening – and why not? It’s her job. “Where would you go? Who do you have besides myself?” Anne asks when the fool wants to leave, only to be asked in return “Who do you have besides myself?” She does this to the point where we start to feel almost as frustrated as people did who actually employed fools. The trouble is that it’s not only the Fool who does this; practically everyone puns at one point or another, even Jane Seymour – which really doesn’t fit her character as it’s been otherwise portrayed. The Fool is a good character even if she’s a bit heavy on the symbolism and I would have liked it better if she had been the exclusive purveyor of that kind of wordplay, since as I said before – it’s her job.

ERRATA It’s written in a very light, larky style which doesn’t mind anachronisms any more than Gilbert and Sullivan did (or for that matter, any more than Conway Edwardes did). So while references to slipping on banana peels, the existence of guillotines, or having a cup of tea are a little startling when reading, it’s clear that they’re meant for comic effect and not clinical accuracy. Less understandable is the decision to make Lady Kingston the onlie begetter of the entire plot against Anne, as well as somehow acquiring the authority to have random servants executed – really, she has the role here that Lady Rochford often plays, and there’s even less evidence against her, which is to say there’s no evidence whatsoever. Lady Kingston’s sum total of actions against Anne Boleyn appear to have been (1) being one of her ladies in waiting in the Tower (and reporting what she said) and (2) having Anne kneel to her as a proxy for apologizing to Lady Mary (Anne’s idea, not Lady Kingston’s). The fact that the song at the end of the first act laments the male inclination to blame women for everything while the musical itself is doing exactly the same thing by deleting Cromwell from the story and making Lady Kingston the villain is … disconcerting. Furthermore, Jane Seymour was not Lady Kingston’s niece, nor was her husband Lord Kingston (Sir William, thank you, but not Lord anything). Thomas Cranmer is similarly promoted to Lord Cranmer.

WORTH A READ? This was a uniquely frustrating work – one reason I’m posting this three days late is that I kept rereading it and coming to a different conclusion every time, which I suppose in a way is its own recommendation. It didn’t help that I had no access to the music; there doesn’t seem to be a recording and I’m not nearly good enough at reading a score to learn enough by it, so I was working with incomplete information. Based on what I simply read, however, this felt like a musical that couldn’t make up its mind. The songs seemed to belong to two different musicals: a Conway Edwardes ripoff and a “serious” musical. And this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem – after all, what serious production can’t use some comic relief? – but the styles were so disparate as to be very jarring. It really felt like I was reading two somewhat underdeveloped musicals jammed into one book. I loved the “Confession” song, especially Anne’s portion, but what’s it doing on the same stage as the ludicrously overdone “Kill The Brat”? For that matter, what’s Lady Kingston doing there at all? She’s so overdone that she shames most Lady Rochfords, one-note and vile from beginning to end. Jane Seymour has the excuse of being a “puppet”, but Lady Kingston’s motivations are never terribly convincing and mentioned in the most perfunctory way – she just enjoys tormenting people, not least her husband. She’s a shrew who would have seemed overdone on a ’50s sitcom, which was especially infuriating when the plot turned on a crime that was indubitably committed by a man – several men – against a woman and five men who were in her wake. Instead Cromwell disappears altogether, Henry is turned into a blundering, vicious, incredibly suggestible moron and Lady Kingston is his Svengali. Perhaps it comes across ironically on the stage, but it certainly didn’t in the book.

Anne herself, though she and the Fool had some crackling scenes, was also ultimately a disappointment. I think the problem here was that the story began too late in dramatic time – by having Anne in a miserable marriage at the outset and arrested five pages in, she didn’t have much of an emotional gamut to run. She’s miserable and isolated at the beginning and miserable and isolated at the end; the only change is that thanks to Mistress Stoner’s consolation she’s sure that even someone as broken as herself can be redeemed. It’s beautifully expressed, but again, frustrating – we never saw her lying or cheating to gain glory, we never saw her in her triumph. All we’re seeing is the very tail end of her fall. I’m not sure I’d see this musical as it is, but if Lady Kingston’s one-note shrew could be written out – yes, I’d go. If nothing else, I’d like to hear the music finally.

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