Though they are radiantly successful, we are always aware that the success depends on leveraging their limited powers. (One scene is trenchantly set among hair dryers in a beauty salon.) Especially in the haunting conclusion, a community prank that suggests the birth of theater itself, I thought about how acting was one of the first professions available to women.
Another, for a lucky few, was queen. Or at least, as “Henry VIII” demonstrates, they were lucky for a while.
This rarely seen collaboration between Shakespeare, at the height of his powers, and John Fletcher, at the far lower height of his, compresses a 15-year slice of Henry’s life, from 1520 to 1533, into what seems like a few days.
Even if you don’t know which passages scholars say are Shakespeare’s and which Fletcher’s, your ear will guide you accurately enough. Much of the play feels thin yet padded, a pro forma tribute to the House of Tudor; but then there are scenes so rich in poetry and emotional detail they can tear your heart out when properly performed.
These are mostly the scenes with Queen Katherine, formerly of Aragon, for whom faultless chastity and obedience to her husband weren’t enough to outweigh her “failure” to provide a male heir. Rarely have I seen fury and sadness and residual love so potently brewed as in Irene Poole’s blistering performance here, under the direction of Martha Henry, a noted Shakespearean herself. Ms. Poole fulfills the play’s alternative title, “All Is True.”
Still, Katherine gets sidelined, and the play ends with the glorious birth — to Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn — of the future Elizabeth I. Not that this ultimately helped Boleyn, who was beheaded not three years later on charges that, naturally, included adultery.
Elizabeth makes a more substantial appearance, as the 20-something Bess, in Kate Hennig’s “Mother’s Daughter,” commissioned by Stratford and directed by Alan Dilworth. But the play, the third in a series of Ms. Hennig’s explorations of Tudor royals, mostly focuses on Bess’s half sister, Mary, maligned by history as Bloody Mary for the kind of executions we take for granted in kings.