Review: Rakata’s Henry VIII at The Broad Stage

Broad Fundacion Henry VIII

I wanted to see Shakespeare’s Henry VIII/ Enrique VIII at The Broad to see if I would be able to follow the play even if I couldn’t understand the language. The production is being presented by the Madrid classical theatre company Rakatá, in Spanish with English subtitles. It makes its U.S. debut at The Broad following appearances at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London in 2012 and 2013. Rakatá has the distinction of being the first Spanish company ever to perform at the Globe. It is an interesting coincidence that Henry VIII was the play in progress when the original Globe Theatre burned down in 1613.

So what was my experience? There is no doubt that the accomplishment is a triumph for Rakatá. Most productions view Henry VIII’s reign through a very English lens and Rakatá brings a uniquely Spanish perspective to the story. It is an interpretation that makes sense given that Henry’s divorce from the much-beloved Queen Catherine of Aragon is a sore spot in Spanish history. 

Shakespeare handpicks significant scenes from the King’s reign for his play, rather than telling the complete story of his life. Betrayals and alliances factor in strongly. Buckingham’s beheading, Catherine’s trial, Cardinal Wolsey’s deceit, Henry’s first encounter with Anne Boleyn and the subsequent birth of their daughter Elizabeth are portrayed with unflinching determination and Rakatá’s deep passion for its role in the telling is sincere.

They are a well-trained company of actors with far-reaching credits listed in their bios. Quality commitment begets quality work, and that is very evident here. Fernando Gil is excellent in the title role, tall and stately as the young King navigating the manipulations of courtly life, but this production unquestionably belongs to Elena González, the mesmerizing Spanish Queen Catherine.

González is regal, passionate, and fully in command of the stage; a formidable presence who will not give in to the false accusations against her. Her speeches were some of the most compelling of the night, drawing thunderous applause as the audience sounded their approval.

The final scenes of the 2-hour adaptation are woven together by director Ernesto Arias as a sickly Catherine relates an unusual dream and Elizabeth’s baptism takes place. The physical change in Catherine is striking as costumer Susan Moreno emphasizes how small the once imposing Queen has become. Stripped of her title, barefoot, and clad in a white nightdress, she moves haltingly among the motionless members of the court, perfectly postured in their resplendent robes. It’s quite chilling.

Julio Hidalgo offers a smart interpretation as Buckingham and later is almost unrecognizable as the elderly Cardinal Campeius. Jesus Teyssiere’s Archbishop Cranmer delivers a powerful speech to pronounce the glory that will be Elizabeth’s reign, though he is an unsettling presence in earlier scenes. Sara Moraleda captures Anne’s youth and beauty.

Still, while I enjoyed the artistic merits of the performance, as a non-Spanish speaking audience member my ability to emotionally engage with the play was limited. The English subtitles were sufficient to explain the story but were only shortcuts that summarized the action. They captured none of the nuance of Shakespeare’s text and without the poetic imagery and verse being available it sounded like rapid-fire dialogue that went by in a blur. Since most of the scenes consist of characters talking about what has happened offstage or everyone listening to one person speaking, it creates a very static experience.

Add to that the distractions of two people on their cell phones near me, a dozen or so audience members leaving mid-scene, and a 2-year old talking throughout the first half of the play somewhere in the back of the theatre, and it was not the most conducive to emotional engagement.

Interestingly enough, one of the scenes with the least amount of dialogue – when Henry meets Anne at Wolsey’s party – struck a solid emotional chord due to the addition of music, an abrupt lighting shift, and a sensuality between the two that transcended the moment.

We are fortunate that Los Angeles has a venue such as the Broad Stage that continues to bring international Shakespeare players to our city. Every production enhances the ability of audiences and artists to expand their world view via a shared theatrical experience. Henry VIII was my introduction to experiencing Shakespeare in a language not my native tongue and, while I probably won’t opt for this kind of production again, I am grateful to have the chance to experience it at least once.

Ellen Dostal
Shakespeare in LA

Presented by Rakatá
Adapted by José Padilla, Rafael Díez Labín, and Ernesto Arias
Directed By Ernesto Arias
Sept 26 – 29, 2013
The Broad Stage
1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401
Tickets: (310) 434-3200


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