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The Other Boleyn Girl review – the sexual strategising of the conniving Boleyn family brought sharply to life

Lightly sketched … James Corrigan, Lucy Phelps and Freya Mavor as the Boleyn siblings. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey

Lightly sketched … James Corrigan, Lucy Phelps and Freya Mavor as the Boleyn siblings. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey© Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey

Wife Number 2 to serial husband, King Henry VIII, first to be beheaded and a marital trigger for the Reformation, Anne Boleyn is without doubt a star of the Tudor age, her life and death finely documented.

What is lesser known is the place of her sister, Mary – the other Boleyn of the title – in Henry’s court, and his heart. She was the king’s mistress before Anne became his wife. Plucked from the footnotes of history by novelist Philippa Gregory, on whose book this adaptation by Mike Poulton is based, this fictionalised story has twice been made into a film, with Peter Morgan’s star-studded version offering a soft-focus portrait of the sisters.

How does this staging add to Mary’s legacy? It is hard to say. She stays a secondary force to the fierce, ambitious, more sharply drawn Anne for a little too long. In fact, the focus is less on the emotional dynamic between sisters for the most part, more on the ambitious strategising of the conniving Boleyn family who use Anne (Freya Mavor) and Mary (Lucy Phelps) as sexual pawns in their high stakes courtly manoeuvring.

Directed by Lucy Bailey, it is all feverish plot, action and exposition over character development and human drama in the first half.

The relationship between the Boleyn siblings, including brother George (James Corrigan), is lightly sketched and not always probing enough. The trio appear on stage in a cub-like heap at the start but we do not particularly feel the tenderness between them. “I’m not as meek as you,” Anne says to Mary, but the edges between them aren’t sharp enough until the final few scenes. Mary seems indistinct, athough she does eventually reveal her quietly radical power and agency. 

Charges of incest between Anne and George, which partly send her to the block, are hinted at with a kiss but nothing of more substance follows. What is acutely shown, though, is how the sisters refuse to be passive victims, sometimes colluding with the family’s plans, at other times attempting to assert their own will. George is as trapped as his sisters, forced into a strategic marriage.

Though these points are strongly made, characters as a whole feel like generic Tudors, lightly coloured in. The Duke of Norfolk (Andrew Woodall), such a potently calculating presence in Morgan’s film, is a shouty presence here while their mother (Alex Kingston) is cartoonishly villainous, conscripted by patriarchy in pimping out her daughters.

King Henry (James Atherton) barely gets a look-in, which is perhaps a deliberate decision, but it leaves a dramatic vacuum – there is little evidence of the despotic fear and fervour he generates at court. What is more effectively conveyed is the idea of “truth” co-opted by tyranny: “The truth is whatever the king believes to be true,” says Norfolk. 

Joanna Parker’s set is handsome, with projections of colour (designed by Dick Straker) poured on to a spare hexagonal stage. They mark shifts between Henry’s court and the Boleyns’ Hever Castle. Damoclean swords dangle overhead and around marital beds as symbols of courtly danger, foreshadowing Anne’s beheading.

The production’s musicality is another strength, with singing, lute playing and 16th-century dance woven around the drama, which feels almost Shakespearean. The relationship between sisters builds psychological intensity in the final hour, as they fight over their different concepts of power and agency. It is gripping, if late in the day.

• At Chichester Festival theatre until 11 May 

Story by Arifa Akbar: The Guardian: 


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