by Lynn on August 17, 2015

in The Passionate Playgoer

The Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ontario.

Written by Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Designed by Yannik Larivée
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Alexander MacSween
Performed by: Maev Beaty
Sara Farb
Jonah Q. Gribble
Gareth Potter
Bahia Watson
Joseph Ziegler

An astonishing play about a formidable woman who lived in the time of King Henry VIII, but is as contemporary as tomorrow.

The Story. Kateryn (Kate for our purposes) Parr (1512-1548) was the sixth wife of King Henry VIII. His other wives, as we know, were dispatched because they could not produce an heir. Jane Seymour (Henry’s third wife) did produce an heir (Edward) but she died from complications of the birth shortly after that. Now at age 52, overweight, ill, and probably weary, Henry wants a companion, an intelligent and no doubt sexual partner. Enter Kate Parr almost 31 years-old.

When Henry comes on the scene Kate will almost be a widow for the second time. While Henry and Kate’s marriage begins as a ‘business’ proposition with conjugal rights, it grows into something deeper and more heartfelt. He wants her to be responsible for Edward’s education. She also asks if she can take charge of his daughters’ (Elizabeth and Mary) education too. Henry agrees. Kate convinces Henry to consider Elizabeth and Mary princesses and therefore in line to the throne after their brother Edward. He refused to consider such a move before but Kate was resourceful and determined.

Kate has such an intellect that Henry trusted her with responsibility, although not necessarily power, when he was away in France in battle. She was invaluable to him as a confident and adviser. Her writings were published. She survived Henry by one year. She finally married Thomas Seymour but died in childbirth.

The Production. Director Alan Dilworth has helmed a graceful, spare production that always serves the play. Yannik Larivée’s set and costumes are both elegant and efficient. In his set a structure juts out of the upper part of the back of the stage. It suggests a miniature of one of Henry’s castles, but it’s large enough to convey grandeur. A platform just up from the stage floor runs the width of the stage. On this platform, at the back, a rich curtain is parted revealing a throne. That’s all that’s needed to suggest the opulence of court. The main playing area is on the stage floor. A large rectangular table and some chairs are really all the set pieces necessary. Sometimes the table is put flush with the platform, forming a runway of sorts on which Henry and Kate can greet their public. Put two pillows at the top of that table and it becomes their bed. Shift the table and turn it at an angle with chairs by it and it’s a working table.

Kate wears a form-fitting greyish floor length gown. As worn by Maev Beaty as Kate Parr she makes it elegance personified. To suggest a change of scene a jacket, coat or dressing gown is added over the basic gown.

At the beginning of the play Kate is sharing a few secret moments with her lover Thomas Seymour. They are interrupted by an impressive, confident man who is also at the same gathering that they are and asks Thomas to introduce him to Kate. He is King Henry VIII. There are matters of protocol. The King does not go up to someone he wants to meet. He gets a minion to introduce them. Then all gloves are off.

Joseph Ziegler plays Henry and he’s dandy. He has bearing, stature, just the slightest of smug looks, and power oozes out of every pore. He circles Kate, informing her that she hasn’t been too lucky with her husbands. Her first one died; her second one is dying. Both would leave her well provided. Henry tells her he’s next; seals the deal with a face-gripping kiss; then lets her go.

As Kate, Maev Beaty is statuesque, willowy, and initially trapped. Her eyes dart and widen as she tries to think her way out of this unsettling situation—the King wants her for his own. You can see the sharp intellect in this performance as Kate thrusts and parries with Henry about how to solve this. He doesn’t want a mistress. He wants a wife-companion. He gets more than that, as is so clear in Beaty’s beautiful, nuanced performance. Henry gets a partner who startles him. We sense Kate is the first woman who hasn’t buckled in his presence when he demands something. She is his intellectual equal. She is as witty as he is. She has a nimble mind and she makes him change his perceptions.

Beaty plays Kate, as I noted, as a woman with a keen intellect, who knows how to get what she wants with a calm coolness and always as a woman. She’s not a flirt—that would be such an easy way out. She’s just formidable. A woman to recon with. It’s a glorious performance. Mind you there are times when she offers to wash Henry’s diseased leg and the way Beaty says it sounds almost like foreplay.

Sara Farb gives a compelling performance as Mary. She is almost like a bored ‘valley-girl’ but with wit and brains. Initially it’s a performance of resignation; resigned not to be a person who matters; resigned to be a cog in a big wheel. Bored, sarcastic, laid-back but lobbing zingers that are eye-popping in their perception and wit. Then Mary learns from Kate that she can be more and make a difference. She lets us know how aware she is by the end of the play.

As Elizabeth, Bahia Watson is youthful, almost child-like as the young princess, but with an enthusiasm that is charming.

Gareth Potter is the dashing, ambitious Thomas Seymour. He is passionate with Kate and just the tiniest bit suspect in his attention to Elizabeth. One gets the sense that he too is trapped in his situation.

And as the young Eddie, Jonah Q. Gribble is sweet, innocent and one knows will be sucked into that male world in spite of Kate’s influence.

The result is a bracing, moving, gripping production of an astonishing play.

Comment. Kate Hennig has been writing for years, in between her time as a fine actress. I saw her play The Eleventh David at Summerworks in 2006. When she was in the Canadian/RSC production of The Penelopiad she kept a wonderful blog of the on-ongoing experience. She also kept a similar blog when she was in Billy Elliot on Broadway. Her writing is smart, funny, thoughtful and engaging.

Her writing in The Last Wife is something else again. It is astonishing in its maturity, intellect and perception of the world of court, politics and political intrigue, considering that this is Hennig’s first major work produced at a major theatre.

She presents the facts of Kate’s life and times, but she also creates her beating heart and the pop and fizz of her personality. Hennig of course does it for all the characters in the play. She has written Kate as a woman living in a man’s world, in intriguing, even dangerous times but she is living it as a woman on her own terms. This Kate Parr knows the rules of the games that those men play, but she plays them so decidedly as a woman—not a ‘bitch’ or any other pejorative name; not as a woman as man, but as a thoughtful, gracious, forceful woman. She knows the importance of womanly whiles (she asks how Jane Seymour would handle a situation and is told with sex. Kate knows that secret, but she doesn’t just resort to it).

Kate also instills in Mary and Elizabeth something they never believed or even considered before, namely the endless productive possibilities of how to live their lives as women. She got them to ‘think out of the box’ into which Henry and the court put them. Before Kate they were relegated to being Henry’s daughters, without possibility of succession. With Kate she said that they could and should be considered princesses in line for the throne. And when she quietly, determinedly lobbied Henry to change the law and he did, Kate opened up the world of possibilities to her two step-daughters. Both Mary and Elizabeth would continue that forward thinking from the play on, into both their reigns.

The scene when Kate, Mary and even young Elizabeth are frantic to solve a problem of getting cannons and ammunition to France to help Henry in his campaign against the French, is a case in point. The table is strewn with thick books on marine facts and figures. Elizabeth is the one who usually comes up with a solution from facts from a book. Kate considers it and finds the reason why it won’t work. They don’t quit. They tenaciously continue until that eureka moment. It’s bracing theatre and a situation created by a gifted writer showing how young women can and will hold their own in that man’s world.

Of course all this is fact noted in history. What Kate Hennig does is add the heart, brains and resolve of a resourceful thinking woman. We see Kate Parr’s thought processes that lead Henry, his children and the court forward, progressing.

In her program note Hennig says that she has always been interested in women’s stories and in feminism. Both are given vibrant life in The Last Wife and so much more. She has written a play about Kate Parr in the time of Henry VIII using language that sounds both formal and appropriate for Henry’s time and yet familiar and colloquial for ours. Even the swearwords are appropriate and not anachronistic.

Kate Hennig intends The Last Wife to be part of a trilogy with the other two plays being about Elizabeth and then Mary. I can hardly wait to see them. In the meantime, both the play and production of The Last Wife are precious gifts to anyone who loves/likes/or is curious about theatre at its best.

Presented by the Stratford Festival.

Opened: Aug. 14, 2015.
Closes: Sept. 20, 2015.
Cast: 6; 3 men, 3 women
Running Time: 2 hours approx.

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