When a young and seemingly naïve Elizabeth I asks her step-mother, the sixth and final wife of the notorious Henry VIII, if she thinks that “girls are smart enough to run a country” one can’t help but cheer and chuckle along with Katherine Parr’s frank response: “Girls are smart enough, they’re just not legal”(emphasis is my own). The Last Wife by Kate Hennig is a brilliant work that explores gender roles, complicates the idea of sexual politics, and also highlights intersectional feminism. Coming off of a wildly successful world premiere in Stratford, this new remount (which enjoyed another sold out run in Victoria, BC) is a triumphant co-production between the Great Canadian Theatre Company and Belfry Theatre and certainly one you won’t want to miss.
Henry VIII is undoubtedly one of the most famous monarchs in the Western hemisphere if not for the historical significance of his turbulent reign, then definitely for his numerous torrid (and sometimes fatal) love affairs. The latter of the two has provided much influence for countless artistic creation (A Man for All Seasons) and imaginative historical retellings, such as Philippa Greggory’s The Other Boleyn Girl or the Elizabeth films directed by Shekhar Kapur, whereby the women surrounding Henry prove themselves to be equally worthy of our attention. Playwright Hennig tells us in the show program that while researching the play’s subject matter she found that most of the story we’ve “received about [Katherine Parr] is distorted” (though to anyone who’s studied History of Historiography this really comes as no surprise), and so by linking the past historical context with a contemporary writing style Hennig presents us with a new lens through which one can view this familiar tale.
To summarise briefly: Kathrine Parr is hardly a widow to a dying husband when the illustrious King Henry VIII strolls into town asking for her hand in marriage. Both have a similar objective: not to get caught up in the other’s traps. Despite their glaring differences, however, the two manage to come to an understanding and we see an affectionate romance grow out of the respect they find for one another. Don’t get it twisted, this play isn’t your classic fairy tale-The Last Wife shows us the messy and complicated nature of love.
One of the first things you’ll notice about this piece is how clean it looks especially in its earliest scenes. From its minimal set design to the pared down, but no less attractive, costumes (both designed by Shannon Lea Doyle, by the way), aesthetically speaking this production is crisp. I find the use of lighting (designed by Martin Conboy) to be particularly enjoyable because of the way it appears to be pretty unobtrusive but yet is actually integral to the creation of space and moods on a rather open concept and mono-toned set. The pop of intense saturated colour filling the upstage door frame is a nice touch and fits in with the flare of the overall design.
As far as performances go, this is without doubt some seriously strong stage acting, most notably from Oliver Becker (Henry) and Celine Stubel (Kate). Becker as the often caricatured royal, delivers an incredible maelstrom of anger, pain and vulnerability, which affords the audience a chance to reflect on the character and his many nuances allowing us to question, like Kate, whether or not this man is worthy of redemption. Instead of just writing the character off as the misogynistic antagonist, Becker (through Hennig) encourages us to wrestle with the question of whether Henry is a victim to (or a product of) the patriarchal society he was brought up in or, conversely, does he actively try and perpetuate it? That most of us probably won’t come to a clear cut answer highlights the fact that patriarchy is damaging to men too.
An equal force to be reckoned with on stage is Stubel playing the eponymous Last Wife, a woman who is commonly portrayed playing pious nursemaid to Henry’s rapidly failing health. Stubel has been given an incredible role to work with here playing, on the surface, a female character within the narrative who is subjugated and oppressed by the patriarchal feudal system that governs her everyday life; and also, on a deeper level, a white female performer speaking to female performers of colour about advocating for their cause (“I’m on your side. I’m advocating for you.”). This statement isn’t lost on intersectional feminists whereby white women are seen to hold privilege over their non-white counterparts and are thus criticized for ‘speaking for’ other women whose life experiences (and societal oppressions) can be vastly different from their own. This performer in particular shows great poise and restraint in her character work and her breakdown is wonderfully tragic when Parr’s world comes crashing down around her.
I would be remiss not to mention the other actors in the ensemble: Sean Baek plays the confident but conflicted playboy, Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley; Auden Larrat as young Edward is sweet and dutiful on stage; Anie Richer playing the pre-bloody and adolescent Mary I of England is just as feisty as her reputation lets on (though she has her sensitive moments too); and finally, Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha is bright and jocular as the perceptive Bess, future Queen of England whose reign will become synonymous with the flourishing of English Drama. Though I’ve spent a lot of space emphasizing the dramatic nature of this piece, it should be noted that the supreme hilarity inherent in this text (and particularly embodied in Becker and Tahririha’s performances) is often a much needed balance to the violent undertones.
Some of this, I would think (if not most of it), can be credited to director Esther Jun’s watchful eye and her staging is just as clean as the overall design. The subtle but clever use of levels suggests which character(s) holds the power on stage as we see, for example, in the very first scene when Henry puts his arms around both Thomas and Catherine- he stands on the step above them. In fact, I noted that there are many moments where Henry opts to take the ‘higher ground’ when he takes power of a situation. I also thought the scene where Henry physically hits his wife is handled very thoughtfully and results in a truly powerful moment on stage.
This could really describe Hennig’s entire play, to be honest. Her thoughtful exploration into the life of a woman whose story was decidedly written for her has resulted in a truly powerful reflection on feminism and its “recurring place in our history”(show program, 2016). If I might digress but a little, I would like to expand briefly on one very specific line of text as a testament to just what kind of discourse The Last Wife can inspire.
In an attempt to reverse Henry’s arrest warrant (and likely subsequent execution), Katherine asks her confidant and lover Thomas what Jane (Henry’s favourite wife who died shortly after giving birth to Edward) might do in her position. Thomas responds with “the sex” and, even being privy to Katherine’s past abuse, states that it would be a “pretty easy way to stay alive”. For (an assumed) 50% of the audience this might now seem like a brave, or even Romantic, decision our heroine must make. But for most women (again, I’m assuming) and anyone who’s ever experienced sexual abuse and/or rape the choice becomes rather like death versus death.
There is much literature to suggest that women are intrinsically connected to their vaginas through our nervous system (Virginia Wolf’s Vagina is one such book) and that any nerve damage sustained by the female reproductive organs (for example, that which happens through complicated childbirth and rape) can directly impact how women see the world and feel fulfillment. Through this lens then we can see that using sexual favours to keep one alive is not the same as the ‘sexual politics’ that Jane allegedly used to soothe Henry.
That’s what’s kind of maddening about that line- “It’s a pretty easy way to stay alive”; and also Henry’s line regarding the chess pieces: “Why can the King only more one spot at a time and the Queen can do whatever she wants?”- is the infuriating ignorance of (white) male privilege that has recurred throughout history alongside feminism. These types of individuals are so concerned with how many spaces they can move that they’ve become blind to the fact that the entire game revolves around protecting them. It’s difficult for men like Thomas to understand what it means to offer up your body as a way of getting what you want when men’s bodies have not been the site for rape warfare for centuries upon centuries and maybe it seems easier to these kinds of men like Henry having grown up in a system built to safeguard them.
In any case, Hennig shows a mark of brilliance in complicating matters further by having Katherine follow through with Thomas’ suggestion. Only this time, though having put much focus on her need to ‘take the lead’ and be asked permission in the bedroom, Katherine doesn’t ask Henry for his consent before making her move. This scene, to me, highlights an often glossed over double standard that suggests that women (or any individual) who come on to men in this way are not committing sexual assault vis a vis the misconception that men are perpetually sexually consenting beings. Yes, perhaps, the argument could be made that both Henry and Katherine make seemingly genuine admissions of love towards one another, but when there’s so much personal ambition and pride at stake it is hard to trust anyone’s motives.
The Last Wife is an extraordinarily layered piece of theatre that I could only begin to delve into here. I have to agree with Artistic Director Eric Coates here and say that it is certainly refreshing to return to the full-length form, especially when sitting at 2 hours and 45 minutes this production (thankfully) has a killer pace. Seriously, this might be one of my favourite shows I’ve seen at the GCTC so far. Bravo!
The Last Wife by Kate Hennig
Directed by Esther Jun
Presented by the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Co-Production with Belfry Theatre
Playing at the Irving Greenberg Centre until November 20th
Ticket info can be found here.