Last night we went to see Six at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge; I bought the tickets, but my husband accompanied me willingly. I simply could not resist a musical about the six wives of Henry VIII and it did not disappoint in its fluffy, fun feminism. The performance was certainly not a deep (or long) dive, but it was interesting in its distillation of the essential character of each woman, whether based on fact or fiction. Each queen had her say (or song), but the entire performance was a collective concert; midstream my husband said it reminded him of Josie and the Pussycats! The musical’s writers, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, are younger than us so they were inspired by different pop princesses: Beyonce, Avril Lavigne, Adele, Rhianna, Ariana Grande, Alicia Keys.
Beard Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum.
Henry and his six wives have been the focus of many popular culture expressions for decades, even centuries: none of them will ever die. What’s interesting to me about re-envisioning is how it reflects on the society which is doing the re-envisioning and what gets distilled down as the universal “truth” of whatever or whomever is being recalled. In the case of the former, the King is nowhere to be seen on the Six stage: obviously he is the elephant in the room but he’s not there in this #metoo moment, this “her-story” (I hate that word; I almost lost the job I now hold because I told the hiring committee I would not teach a course on the books titled “Herstory” as history was about people). It’s all about the women and even though they look and sound very contemporary their characterizations are pretty traditional: Catherine of Aragon is the steadfast queen who says “no way” to Henry, Jane Seymour is “the only one he really loved”, Anne of Cleves is the one who got away, with a very nice annulment settlement, Katherine Howard is the precocious teenager with very poor judgement owing to an abusive past, and Katherine Parr is the grown-up survivor. I’ve heard this all before many times, and there’s a nice spotlight on the court painter Hans Holbein, including the old yarn in which he is sent to Germany to paint the miniature portrait of Anne of Cleves before her betrothal to Henry, and falling in love with her, made her more beautiful than she really was and so raised the King’s expectations to an extent that she could not meet, as well as entire song, “Haus of Holbein,” right in the middle of the performance. The one Queen I did not recognize was Anne Boleyn: she’s a plucky party girl in Six, with many, many references to her unfortunate death, including her showcase song, “Don’t Lose Ur Head”. She does get one of the best lines of the night when narrating her long road to royal marriage, when “the Pope said nope” to the annulment of Henry’s first marriage. But there’s no conviction in Anne, or any of the wives really: it’s hard to inject religion into a pop concert. The conceit of the show was that these women would compete—through their stories–for the title of who suffered the most at Henry’s hands, but near the end they decided they were all in it together, so we didn’t get to clap for our favorite Queen. I was relieved, as I was torn: I know Henry’s first queen suffered the most, but my very favorite, forever, is his last.
All the wives, plucky Anne, personal Tudor history from the last century, and Hans Holbein re-envisioned by Alys Jones.