by Lynn on July 26, 2017

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Studio Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Written by Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
Designed by Yannik Larivée
Lighting by Kimberly Purtell
Sound by Alexander MacSween
Cast: Nigel Bennett
Laura Condlln
Sara Farb
Brad Hodder
Yanna McIntosh
André Morin
Bahia Watson

An intriguing continuation to Kate Hennig’s trilogy of plays about the Tudors. Alas I found Bahia Watson’s delivery as Bess to be too rapid fire with little heart, mind and nuance.

The Story. This is the second of three plays about The Tudors. Last year we saw The Last Wife, about Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII and his two daughters, Elizabeth (Bess) and Mary.

The Virgin Trial is about the political and sexual intrigue surrounding Princess Elizabeth referred to as Bess, who is now 15 and whip smart politically—she was well taught. Bess may or may not be romantically involved with Thom, the Lord High Admiral and husband to her step-mother, Katherine Parr. Bess flirts with Thom and he returns the attention. There is also the fact that Thom might be involved in a plot to overthrow the government. So Bess is summoned to be interviewed about this by Ted, the Lord Protector to Edward VI, Elizabeth’s brother. Ted is also Thom’s brother. Matters get a bit sticky with all this intrigue. Bess is desperate to keep her name pristine, so even for one so young she is wily in manoeuvring her way around court and interrogation.

The Production. As with The Last Wife, The Virgin Trial takes place in the time of the Tudors but is performed in modern dress and everything else: language, attitudes and themes, are contemporary.

Yannik Larivée’s set is simple and spare. A curtain hangs upstage and depending on Kimberly Purtell’s lighting we can either see through it to view what’s on the other side or the curtain is dark and we see nothing on the other side. There is a wood rectangular table with two chairs, one on either side of the width of it.

Bess (Bahia Watson) sits at the table. Her hair is pulled back in a tight formation. She wears a colourful dress appropriate for a fifteen-year-old, and flat shoes. Her hands are folded in her lap. She waits.

Eleanor, a lady of the court, arrives and places some files on the table with a sense of declaration. As played by Yanna McIntosh, Eleanor is irritated. She has a tight look on her face. She wears a black form-fitting coat, under which is a skirt (?) black tights and thigh-high boots with stiletto heels. This woman is formidable. She flips open a writing pad and flicks a ballpoint pen to get the tip to write. She asks Bess questions with an edge. Bess wants some tea. Eleanor says they only have water. This is a battle of wills between two strong women.

Bess of course is to the manor born. She was primed in court by her father, Henry VIII and her stepmother Katherine Parr. As Bess, Bahia Watson has bearing and the attitude of one born into royalty. She has that smugness of a teenager who has a sense of entitlement. She enunciates her words crisply. It’s just that I don’t believe a word she says. Her dialogue is given in a staccato rapid fire like a machine gun, without variation in tone, pace or nuance. Everybody around her is watchful, reactive, listens, hears and assesses. You can see it in their eyes and faces. Bahia Watson focuses on who is talking but every reply is a response and not quite a true reaction to what is being said or thrown at her. While listening her face is a blank. Perhaps this is how we are to believe a royal behaves? But does it not follow the others at court would do the same?

In contrast, Yanna McIntosh as Eleanor is imperious, cold, formidable and quietly threatening. Just with a flick of her eyes you can see the brains working, assessing. Formidable in a different way is Nigel Bennett, the Protector of Edward VI and the interrogator of Bess. He is jokey, quietly supportive, and lethal when he goes in for the kill with Bess. He knows how to keep his head, both literally and figuratively. He is also ruthless. He orders people who work for Bess to be tortured and he seems to relish it.

As Mary, Sarah Farb is wonderfully calculating and cool. She is perpetually bored with what is going on but knows how to play the game, and certainly helps Bess when she needs it most. As before, it’s directed with efficiency and care by Alan Dilworth.

With any good mystery we wonder will Bess be broken and bested by Ted and Eleanor who appear to be more ruthless and wily that Bess is, or are they. It’s fascinating watching as the characters shift and manoeuvre and manipulate.

Comment. Playwright Kate Hennig is a wonderful, perceptive, vibrant writer. She uses Bess’s story to comment on such contemporary subjects as consent, coercion, political will and manoeuvring. And Hennig is such a gifted writer that she has fashioned The Virgin Trial like a political thriller and a mystery. And while I do have problems with Bahia Watson as Bess, others might not. Acting is such a personal thing. Therefore I am recommending The Virgin Trial because it’s a splendid play and production

Produced by the Stratford Festival.

Began: June 7, 2017.
Saw it: July 18, 2017.
Closes: Sept. 23, 2017.
Cast: 7; 3 men, 4 women
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes approx.

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