The Six Wives of Henry VIII: how it came about

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“Can we do a Blog or something?” Asks Howard. “About Henry…”

“Yeah,” I reply “I guess we could do a blog.”

“For the website,” he adds, “so people can see what we’re up to along the way…”

“Ok” I said.

So here I am, sitting in an apartment in Berkeley, California, with a cup of tea writing a blog. I should point out that the reason I’m here is that I am in the final week of the US run of The Wild Bride, a show I’ve been touring all over with Kneehigh. We’ve been here for 7 weeks, and poor Howard and Craig (our director) have been having endless meetings and sorting everything to do with The 6 Wives of Henry VIII all by themselves back in Bristol, Skyping me the finer points of their discussions. I’ve felt slightly left out of the process, although I know it’s all of my own volition. Anyway, I’m back in a week, and I’m really looking forward to getting back to the story of Henry and his troubled bedfellows.

‘So, how did it all begin?’ I hear you ask. Well, gentle reader, therein lies a tale…

In 2009 I was living in Purley, Surrey, and one boring Sunday my then girlfriend and I decided to go on a day trip to Hever Castle in Kent (the childhood home of Anne Boleyn). We wandered around the grounds, umming and ahhing at the various bits of armour and grandiose furniture when suddenly my eye was caught by a rather ostentatious portrait of Henry VIII.

Odd, I thought, to put a portrait of the murderer in the victim’s house. But this was no ordinary murderer, after all. This was King Henry VIII. As I studied the portrait a strange feeling came over me. You know that odd feeling when you’ve seen somebody before and you can’t quite decide where, or in what capacity you know them? I puzzled on this for some time, and then it came to me – by Jingo! It was Howard Coggins!

Howard Coggins…

I first met Howard in probably 1997 or so. I was in the Bristol Old Vic Young Company, and Howard was a fairly new-to-the-scene actor, having graduated from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama back in 1994. He was in a show called Up The Feeder, Down the Mouth at Bristol Old Vic, and I went along to watch.

I’d seen him around, in the cafe or bar, swaggering in and out of the building like a bald, portly Clint Eastwood, but hadn’t actually ever spoken to him. Then I ended up being asked to perform some scenes from Up the Feeder on the docks in Bristol as part of the Marine Festival – Living History it was called. Howard was also asked, as were 5 or 6 other local actors, most of whom were friends of Howard’s from the show.

I don’t actually remember the first time we spoke or what was said. What I do remember was that we were asked to do the Living History for a further 6 consecutive years, (as well as a revamped version of the full show, out on the docks) each time with the cast shrinking and shrinking until it was just the two of us. By this point we had struck up quite a rapport from working closely together every day. Howard was (and still remains) the only actor I’ve worked with who has ever been able to make me corpse. And we corpsed a hell of a lot during the Living History Maritime Festivals.

So… Back in Hever castle, Howard, it seemed, bore a striking resemblance to Henry VIII. I called him up there and then.

“Has anyone ever told you that you look like Henry VIII?”

“No, they haven’t.”

“It really is uncanny, Howard. You look a lot like Henry VIII. I’m standing in front of his portrait now, and it’s just you in a costume.”

“Ah right. Well, there’s a show in there somewhere!” he laughed.

“Yeah, you play Henry and I’ll play all the wives!” I said.

He stopped laughing and went very quiet.

“That’s a great idea,” he murmured reverently.

 “I was just joking,” I replied.

“No, seriously,” said Howard, “That is a brilliant idea. I’ll play Henry, you play the wives! Let’s write it.”

Cut to a year or so later. I was in Minneapolis, Minnesota on tour with another show, and I decided to buy a book about Henry VIII. I’d quite come round to the idea by this point, and decided I’d finally have a stab at writing something for it. The idea was that we would write it together, each of us taking a different section of the story. I was also quite keen to get us in the story, so that we could come in and out of character, and I wanted to explore what that us was.

So I wrote a bit, and emailed it to Howard. He reacted enthusiastically, so I wrote more. He kept laughing at the drafts I was sending, so I wrote more.

Pretty soon I’d written the whole of Act 1.

“Weren’t you going to write some too?” I asked him one day.

“Um, I think you’re doing alright. Just carry on.”

Christmas 2010. I was doing Swallows and Amazons at Bristol Old Vic, and I decided that I’d give the script of Act 1 to Sharon Clark and Kate Yedigaroff who run Bristol Ferment, an open forum where local artists can have a chance to show their works-in-progress to audiences to see if they work. I wasn’t expecting them to let us do it – just for some advice, and perhaps a few pointers of where to go next.

Sharon came and found me in the cafe one morning.

“It’s a yes to Henry for the Ferment season.” She said. “You can go on the week after you finish in Swallows and Amazons.”

I called Howard and gave him the news.

“Shit.’ he said. “Now we’ve actually got to do it.”

The night of the show, we were so nervous about performing it, that we just threw ourselves into it. And it all paid off. The audience seemed to love it, we had a great time, and Bristol Old Vic offered us a run.

So that’s the story of how it came about. Now for Chapter 2 – actually doing the thing. Gulp. 

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