Rakatá/Fundación Siglo de Oro (Castilian Spanish)

29-30 May, 2012

I presume the organizers of the festival are very pleased with Rakatá’s production of Henry VIII. The Madrid-based theatre company managed to mobilise a significant portion of the Spanish-speaking community in London and a number of Spanish tourists, like myself, who occupied around three quarters of the house in the Wednesday afternoon performance and which practically sold out the venue on Thursday evening. Apart from some curious English speakers and a number of other Spanish accents I managed to identify, you could tell that Spain had been the home of a large part of the audience at some point in their lives. The nationality of the crowd was not only given away by the number of complaints about the insufficiently chilled beer and the amount of cigarette smoking at the interval but by the way the crowd enthusiastically applauded the catharsis of Spanishness that resulted from this production of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play. That’s where I suspect the organizers will also be delighted, if with their choice of theatre company they expected a decidedly ‘Spanish’ take on the play.

On the page, away from the pressures of theatrical performance, Henry VIII allows for a wealth of overlapping and often contradictory readings. Instead, the Spanish company’s pragmatic antidote to the text’s ambivalences has been to streamline the performance by reordering, cutting, rewriting and even adding lines to transform Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII into what perhaps should have more accurately been called The Tragedy of Katherine of Aragon. This does not only concur with a tradition of (heavily) rewritten Spanish performances of Shakespeare’s plays that dates back to the late eighteenth century, but the title of the only other production of Henry VIII by a Spanish company — Catalina de Aragón, by the theatre group La Carbonera (1965) — suggests that, however tentative, Rakatá’s production initiates a trend in the short Spanish performance history of the play. For the Spanish eye this should hardly be surprising, since Rakatá production relocates to the Globe the version of the story that has often circulated within Spanish culture, that is, the familiar tale of the hypocritical, womanising English ruler and the noble, self-sacrificing Spanish queen.

From that perspective Katherine becomes the unequivocally heroic character in the play at the timeliest of locations. In the whole of its performance history, I doubt Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Spanish queen has ever been delivered for an audience as ready to sympathise with her exiled condition as this one. The interpellation of the audience’s Spanishness felt especially powerful at those instances where Katherine depicts herself as a fragile alien in a court of strangers while, in order to render the heroic fall of the Spanish queen effectively, the rest of the main characters were, by contrast, articulated by an underlining of their most conflictive features and, especially, by the undermining of Henry’s credibility. Here, Rakatá followed the lead of the often contradictory passages written by Shakespeare and Fletcher, while at the same time taking a number of unexpected turns and choices that efficiently put the audience in the Queen’s pocket.

Thus, the King not only suffered from his early association with the predictably corrupt Wolsey but also ended up giving protection to Cranmer, champion of the Reformation in the English play, yet here unexpectedly played by Jesús Teyssiere as a sinister religious fanatic. In parallel, Henry’s despicable abandonment of the noble Spanish queen is only worsened by his nearly immediate marriage with Anne Bullen, whose overt sexuality contrasts with the Spanish queen’s temperance, and whose relationship with Henry is presented, in a rewritten and cleverly acted scene, as the result of her ignoble ambition to climb up the royal ladder. Even the final, triumphant birth of the guiltless Elizabeth I is largely ruined by creepy Cranmer, who holds the baby up in the air, while Queen Katherine delivers her dying words, saved by Rakatá for the play’s tragic ending, and which in Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Henry VIII are delivered at the end of act four.

This is only logical. Why should a Spanish audience like Elizabeth any better than Henry? And, after all, if Shakespeare and Fletcher tampered with historical accounts at their will in their dramatisation of the English past, why shouldn’t Rakatá intervene similarly in their staging of Spanish history? However one-sided, or precisely because of that, I am sure that this Henry VIII will interpellate other Spaniards almost as powerfully as it touched some of the ones exiled in London. In their appropriation of Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play, Rakatá have found a little treasure, that is, a restructuring of the play that gives ‘Spanishness’ a comfortable point of view from which to look at the stage. It worked like a charm and I expect further success for this production. At the Globe, the audience cheered, clapped, whistled profusely until the company came back onstage many, many times. Also, Federico Trillo, former Minister of Defence during the last conservative administration and now Spanish ambassador in London, just recently appointed by a new administration that promises to be at least as conservative, stood up from his seat, in ecstasy, in exactly point three seconds.

Juan Cerda
University of Murcia