by Lynn on January 31, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, Toronto, Ont.

Written by Kate Hennig

Directed by Alan Dilworth

Set and Costumes by Yannick Larivée

Lighting by Kimberly Purtell

Sound by Alexander McSween

Cast: Nigel Bennett

Laura Condlln

Brad Hodder

Helen Knight

Yanna McIntosh

André Morin

Bahia Watson

Soulpepper remounts the Stratford Festival’s production of Kate Hennig’s gripping play of power, politics and maneuvering for position with Princess Elizabeth (Bess) Tudor in the center of it all.

Background. Those Tudors certainly knew a thing or two about political intrigue. First there was King Henry VIII and his quest for a son to continue his royal line, which required many wives to carry this through. We know what happened to them if they did not present a male heir. Jane Seymour did produce Edward VI but alas died two weeks after giving birth.

Henry married Catherine Parr, his last wife and by all accounts she was his political, intellectual equal. Playwright Kate Hennig beautifully illuminates Catherine’s smarts in The Last Wife, the first play of her Queenmaker trilogy. The second play, The Virgin Trial deals with court intrigue around Bess, Henry’s daughter. And the last in the trilogy, Mother’s Daughter will deal with Mary, Bess’ half-sister. Mother’s Daughter plays at the Stratford Festival this summer.

Story. In The Virgin Trial it is believed that Thomas (Thom ) Seymour was plotting to overthrow the court of Edward VI and then marry Bess which would put her on the throne, thus giving Thom tremendous power. At the time of all this intrigue Bess was a girl of about 15 years-old, but still one who was wily, politically astute, quick-witted and imperious. She was no pushover.

Bess is ‘interrogated’ by Eleanor, a hard-nosed woman of the court and Ted, the Lord Protector whom Bess calls “Uncle Ted” and who is Thom’s brother. It’s all rather murky isn’t it? They know that Bess and Thom have an attraction even though he’s much older than she is. Still being royal makes Bess all the more attractive to Thom.

The Production. The celebrated 2017 Stratford Festival production is remounted at Soulpepper’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts almost in tact, with only one cast change. Helen Knight is now playing Mary. Director Alan Dilworth now has a more malleable space at the Young Centre than he had at the Studio Theatre in Stratford with its fixed thrust stage and the audience curving around it. At the Young Centre the audience is on both sides of the playing area. I’m not sure that change in the placement of the action is an advantage for the play or creates more intimacy.

Yannik Larivée’s set is elegant in its simplicity. A polished longish table sits on a rich rug center stage. A beautiful chair equal to the beauty of the table is at either end of the table. An opaque curtain runs the width of the stage on both extreme sides of the playing area through which characters enter and exit.

Bess (Bahia Watson) enters with confidence. Her hair is tightly pulled back and arranged stylishly. She wears a dress appropriate for a royal teen and flat shoes. When she sits it’s with a straight back, her legs are close together and her hands are neatly folded in her lap.  There is an imperiousness as she waits.

Eleanor (Yanna McIntosh) enters, also with an easy confidence.  She is dressed in black: black knee-high boots, tights, and a sleek skirt and fitted top. The look suggests power. She carefully lays her papers on the table along with a pitcher of water and glasses.

The battle lines are drawn immediately. Eleanor is there to question Bess about recent events. Eleanor asks Bess if she would like some water and Bess decides to try out her haughty royal attitude by ignoring her and then when she is challenged by Eleanor Bess asks for tea only to be told there isn’t any. They wait for “Ted” (Nigel Bennett) the Lord Protector. He arrives, dapper in a pin-strip suit. He is off-handed, jolly, charming and is the ‘good-cop’ to Eleanor’s ‘bad cop.’ Yanna McIntosh as Eleanor is a formidable, take-no-prisoners adversary. She is subtle but lethal.

Brad Hodder as Thom is boyish, ambitious and toys with Bess’ affections to get what he wants. Equally effective are Laura Condlln as Ashley, Bess’ governess and André Morin as Parry, Bess’ secretary.

Helen Knight as Mary is probably the wiliest of the bunch. She knows where the skeletons are in that palace and how to protect herself. Ms Knight is watchful and cool. She also has some advice for Bess when Bess comes asking for it. Knight gives a compelling performance of a really compelling character.  There is danger, intrigue and mystery in that palace and everybody seems to be on high alert.

My concern continues to be Bahia Watson as Bess. While she has the poise of royalty and the girlishness of a teenager, Watson plays Bess as relentlessly petulant, with little variation. Answers are snapped out as if Watson is reacting without listening to the comment. The lack of variation in her performance is brought into stark contrast when one watches the subtle exchanges between McIntosh and Bennett.

Comment. Kate Hennig has once again shown her keep sense of observation in telling a story about court intrigue and politics. The Virgin Trial is bracing, gripping and so contemporary. I can hardly wait for the last installment.

Soulpepper presents:

Opened: Jan. 24, 2019.

Closes: Feb 3, 2019.

Running Time:  one hour and 45 minutes,

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