Ruthie Dworin in Henry VIII. Photo courtesy of CTC.

The Life of King Henry the Eighth

By William Shakespeare & John Fletcher
Directed by Heather Burns

Review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2017 Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

On Saturday, May 13, this production officially completed the Shakespeare canon of plays for Commonwealth Theatre Center and Walden Theatre, making them the first youth theatre conservatory in the world to accomplish the goal of producing all 38 of the Bard of Avon’s plays.

Why is this play the last? Considering how popular a character the Eighth Henry has always proven to be, you would think Shakespeare’s take on him would be produced more often. Yet it is not highly regarded, overshadowed by Henry the IV Part 1 & 2, and Henry V.

Certainly few would argue that Henry VIII stands up to the other histories, with passages that seem workmanlike and relatively uninspired (let’s just blame those on uncontested co-author John Fletcher), yet the plot focuses on his transition from Queen Katherine and Anne Boleyn (here called Anne Bullen), which has proven to be the most often dramatized part of his life, and the iconic Cardinal Woolsey (Carter Wooten) is the primary villain.

One reason the play may not be as appealing is that, unlike the other histories, there is no armed conflict involved, and war always plays better. The conflict here is strictly political, and although there are a couple of trials, one happens offstage, so there is more scheming than confrontation. Yet there are highly charged moments surrounding Katherine, played with intelligence and fiery spirit by Ruthie Dworin, who is treated badly and discarded by Henry, now smitten with the young Anne. Shakespeare’s text concentrates more on political machinations than the sexual desires of the King, and the back-and-forth accusations and recriminations can try the forbearance of the audience, but these events eventually led to the English Reformation, so they are of no small importance.

Thankfully, director Heather Burns charts a steady and patient pace, and elicits some good performances from key players who make clear the intention of the language. Besides the aforementioned Ms. Dworin, Parker Henderson’s work in the title role is careful and authoritative, finding the Henry that sees himself chosen by God instead of the popular image of the libertine. Carter Wooten subtly turns Cardinal Woolsey from schemer to a tragic figure, and the curtain call is designed to recognize these three seniors, who together can boast 27 years as Walden Theatre Conservatory students (!), in their final roles at CTC. It’s not just the canon that’s being finished here.

Ruairidh Kerr does well with the Duke of Buckingham, particularly in his farewell speech after being found guilty of treason, and in fact, some of the best moments are those given to the farewell of those who have fallen from Henry’s favor: Buckingham, Woolsey, and Katherine.

Other nice turns among the supporting roles came from Zoe Peterson, Frances Rippy, Joey Heberle, and Taylor Broder, all of whom stood out for the confidence with which they handled the language.

Lindsey Chamberlin’s costumes perfectly captured the rich fabrics and block construction of Tudor-period garments, and I particularly liked Katherine’s headpiece. The stately yet prosaic tones of Elizabethan music were used judiciously – I think a little more could have provided some needed dramatic emphasis, and unfortunately a short in the sound system injected some static in the mix.

Heather Burn’s take on the text is thorough and insightful, and this Henry VIII does far more than satisfy the need to check this play off the list. I do hope this is not the last time we see the second Tudor king on a CTC stage.

2017 Young American Shakespeare Festival

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
May 11-13-16 @ 7:30 and May 20 @ 2:00 and May 21 @ 8:00

King John
May 12-18-20 @7:30 and May 14 @ 2:00 and May 21 @ 4:00

Henry VIII
May 13 @ 12:30 and May 14-17-19 @ 7:30 and May 21 @ 12:30

Commonwealth Theatre Center
Nancy Sexton Stage
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204




Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for