Two productions I reviewed before are being remounted in Toronto. The Last Wife by Kate Hennig played at the Stratford Festival for a sold-out run in the summer of 2015 and The Winter’s Tale produced by the Groundling Company had an equally successful run last year through the Coal Mine Company.
Both productions are being remounted and both are exquisite.
The Last Wife
At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.
Written by Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Set and costumes by Yannik Lariveé
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Composed and sound by Alexander MacSween
Cast: Maev Beaty
Jonah Q. Gribble
Katherine Parr was Henry VIII’s last wife. He saw her at a party, forced an introduction by one of his courtiers and proceeded to tell her she would be his next wife. That she was already married was not a hindrance. Her husband was sick and Herny had patience, sort of. Kate was also involved with the courtier so things could be rather dicey.
Henry called her Parr since he had previous wives who were called Katherine and it ended badly with him and them. She is referred to as Kate in Kate Hennig’s smart, gripping, bracing play. While Hennig has certainly referenced the history and intrigue going on at the time of Henry VIII, The Last Wife is presented in modern dress because it’s a decidedly modern play. Hennig has created Kate Parr as an astute, keenly intelligent woman aware of court intrigue, but still needing to sharpen her wits. She could argue and reason with Henry in a way that he appreciated.
Kate successfully argued that Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth should at least be considered of equal rank as Henry’s son Edward. Henry would not even bring himself to acknowledge that they were princesses. To do so would in fact acknowledge that they were royal. In the end Kate won.
The play is pulsing with emotion and political intrigue. You get a good sense of the matching of wits between Henry and Kate, but you are never in doubt that Henry was one formidable character who could end a person’s life with one word.
You were never in doubt of that in Alan Dilworth’s fine, gripping production. The Baillie Theatre (at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts) has been reconfigured so that the audience is on both sides of the stage as well as in front of it, thus suggesting a thrust stage—as it was at Stratford.
Exits and entrances are through the audience as before. If anything, the production is richer, tighter and deeper in this remount. Truth to tell, I thought the Stratford production was pretty fine.
There is such grace and conviction in Maev Beaty’s performance as Kate. You are never in doubt of her initial intimidation when she meets Henry and he just assumes possession. But this Kate also knows how to stare down an adversary with her poise and ability to get a grip on her wits. It’s that steely resolve that is one of the things that endears her to Henry. And as Kate’s affection for Henry grows she is able to gently insinuate her ideas and suggestions to him, top among them is that Mary and Elizabeth should be recognized as princesses. This will then lead the way for them to change the face of the monarchy.
As Henry, Joseph Ziegler is both charming and formidable. This is a king who appears to respect procedure but he also knows how to take what he wants. He is a master politician and a master manipulator. He has found a match in Kate and he respects her for that.
Sara Farb as Mary is one tough princess. Ramrod straight-backed, dour, caustic and always watchable. She is to the manor born. Bahia Watson as Bess (Elizabeth) is younger, more impressionable, always eager to please.
The Last Wife is part of a proposed trilogy of plays. The next instalment is The Virgin Trial and focuses on Elizabeth. I can hardly wait.
Plays to Feb. 11, 2017.
Cast: 6; 3 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 10 minutes.
The Winter’s Tale
At the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto, Ont.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Graham Abbey
Set and lighting by Steve Lucas
Costumes by Jenna McCutchen
Music composed and performed by George Meanwell
Cast: Brent Carver
This is Shakespeare’s story of jealousy, retribution, penance and eventual forgiveness. Leontes accuses his pregnant wife Hermione of having an affair with his best friend, Polixenes. It’s not true. People plead her case. Hermione pleads her case in the kindest but firmest of terms. Leontes is unmoved. It all goes badly and Hermione appears to die as does their young son. What follows is a long, rocky journey of penance and forgiveness.
It’s a play of high, fraught emotions, lyrical love and sweet comedic moments. To make this production as intimate as it had been when it played at the small Coal Mine Theatre last year, director Graham Abbey is remounting the production in an equally intimate space—the stage of the Winter Garden Theatre. The actors present the production on a raised platform in the middle of the stage and the audience sits on stage as well, on risers. There is also a section for the “groundlings” who sit in the theatre proper but they don’t get as advantageous a view as those gathered on the risers. If anything, the audience on stage seems even closer than at the Coal Mine Theatre.
Every reaction or expression of emotion in this artful production is intense if not seeming like life and death. Again, director Graham Abbey has directed this with care and an intelligent mind that thought of how each moment plays out. No scene is squandered. Each vital reaction is staged and directed so that the audience sees every moment clearly.
Every emotional explosion is experienced not only by the characters, but also by the audience. When Paulina, a trusted member of the court, rails at Leontes for killing Hermione with his senseless jealousy, she bashes at him furiously. They are both on the floor, she hitting him, and he letting her. His guilt finally kicks in and he sees his error too late. He spends the next sixteen years doing penance.
And while true love wins out, forgiveness is not that easily given. Leontes must earn his forgiveness and not assume it should be naturally awarded. You hold your breath watching that painful bit of business, wondering and not really sure if he will be forgiven.
The cast is stellar. Tom MacCamus is a natural courtly man as Leontes but obviously Leontes has issues. It’s a masterful performance showing how the emotions of Leontes can make him turn inexplicably from one emotion to the other.
Michelle Giroux plays Hermione with tenderness and concern. She knows Leontes will regret his actions. She tries to reason in the kindest but firmest terms. But she lets him have it with a clear-eyed argument as to why she is innocent. Patrick Galligan wears courtly charm and diplomacy as if it was a perfectly fitting glove. You can see why both Leontes and Hermione love him as a friend and ‘brother’. As Paulina, Lucy Peacock seems to run the show. When she can’t convince Leontes that the baby born when Hermione has ‘died’ is his, she makes plans to make Leontes do proper penance. As volatile as she is when attacking Leontes for his terrible decision, she is equally patient so that he can grieve and mourn properly.
George Meanwell provides the beautiful musical accompaniment as well as playing Time. This is a gift of a production.
Groundling Theatre Company Presents:
Plays until February 19, 2017.
Cast: 13; 9 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes, approx.