By: Meaghan Brackenbury

“Elizabeth the First was extraordinary.”

This is how Canadian playwright Kate Hennig opens her Director’s Note for the Great Canadian Theatre Company’s production of her most recent theatrical venture, The Virgin Trial. In the second installment of her Queenmaker series which began with The Last Wife, following the story of Catharine Parr (the last wife of King Henry VIII), Hennig now turns her attention towards a teenaged Elizabeth I, who has yet to take the throne.

“As a teenager, Elizabeth forged a path which many young women have followed, creating her own definition of who she was in spite of a culture that wished to put her into a neat and tidy box of rules, hormones, fashions and protocols,” Hennig writes.

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Pictured L-R: Anie Richer and Lydia Riding; Photography by Andrew Alexander

It is this breaking of feminine convention that The Virgin Trial explores. Using centuries of debate and speculation over Elizabeth I’s “virginal” status as a launching point, the play brings the issue of slut-shaming and victim-blaming into the modern age by placing the Tudor family in a contemporary crime setting rife with tension.

The power struggle that ensues after Catharine Parr’s death within the Tudor family is the plot’s focal point. Elizabeth, who has been renamed Bess in this adaptation and is played brilliantly by local actress Lydia Riding, sits accused of attempting to assassinate her own younger brother King Edward in collusion with Thomas Seymour, her much older and suspicious care-taker at the time (played by yet another Ottawa native, Attila Clemann). Spending the majority of the play underneath the merciless questioning of investigators Ted (protector to Edward) and Eleanor, Bess, Thom and fellow care-takers Ashley and Parry must endure the ferocity of the alleged sexual and political plot to take the crown.

The entire show takes place within the confines of an interrogation room. The stage is painted a bleak grey and houses only a table and chairs. While the stage is bare, its minimalism achieves the intended purpose of creating a looming canvas for the conflicts between characters to fill the space. All interactions are brought into laser focus, and the tension is palpable. The set is multifunctional at several points, as what was once a table turns into a bed with simply a sheet and pillow, and yet the story never leaves the audience behind, always being sure to provide concrete timestamps on each scene through dialogue.

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Pictured L-R: Lydia Riding and Attila Clemann; Photography by Andrew Alexander

Perhaps the most striking feature of the production was the use of a two-way mirror: typical of a police interrogation room. Bess and Eleanor would be embroiled in intense psychological warfare towards the thrust of the stage only to have the lights suddenly snap off to reveal another character enduring a line of questioning behind the glass, often with violent prompting. As the lights shift and stretch to accommodate time changes, the plurality of storylines intertwine into one messy political battlefield.

As visually stunning as this play was, the message was clear – this is a feminist work of art, and that should be its main focus. Bess is only a young girl, and yet she is being accused of seducing Thom to create this whole ruse. Eleanor badgers her with the tarnished memory of her mother Anne Boleyn, who had been labelled “the Great Whore” throughout England and beheaded. The state of Bess’s virginity and sexual experiences remain the focus of interrogations despite having little relevance to the case at hand. And, with tasteful efficiency but striking clarity, the assault of Bess at the drunken hands of Thom leads to a difficult conversation between her and her sister Mary about terminating the resulting pregnancy.

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Pictured L-R: Attila Clemann, Lydia Riding, Kate Smith, and Cassel Miles; Photography by Andrew Alexander

All of these plot points swirl maliciously around our heroine, forcing her to navigate the pitfalls of being young and female in an intensely misogynistic institution. The choice to stage the historic event in a modern context not-so subtly makes a comment on the ferocity of the modern-day gauntlet that sexism continues to perpetuate today, particularly for women in male-dominated spaces. Elizabeth I’s story has long since passed and is a tale for the history textbooks; but the story of Bess, Elizabeth’s contemporary proxy, lives on in the slut-shaming and victim-blaming culture of current society.

So, it is through reclaiming her innocence and gaining control over her public image and body that Bess finds exoneration and victory in an ambiguous but hopeful conclusion. She begins to command control of the events around her with poise and regality, all while in a stark white outfit to mirror that of the Virgin Queen. With the facts of history on her side, Bess strides purposefully off stage to continue on a legacy that is, indeed, truly extraordinary.

The Virgin Trial

By Kate Hennig

Directed by Eric Coates

September 11-30, 2018 at the Great Canadian Theatre Company

Featuring: Attila Clemann, Cassel Miles, Chris Ralph, Anie Richer, Lydia Riding, Kate Smith, and Kristina Watt.

Lighting Design by Martin Conboy

Sound Design by Verne Good

Set, Props and Costume Design by Jennifer Goodman

 


Meaghan Brackenbury is currently a Journalism and Human Rights student at Carleton University in Ottawa, ON. She loves all things reading, writing, and drama related, which makes theatre criticism the perfect fit. In the future, she hopes to continue writing and watching theatre while traveling the globe. You can check out more of Meaghan’s writing here.

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