The Last Wife is Kate Hennig’s imaginary recreation of the relationship of Henry VIII and Katherine Parr, his last wife. But this is no period drama with 16th century costumes and English accents. There is a model of Hampton Court Palace hovering over the stage but the characters wear modern dress and speak in current colloquial English in their Ontario accent.
Hennig has grafted twenty-first century language, issues and attitudes onto early modern characters without much attempt at historical accuracy. But in many respects, she is faithful to the characters.
Jonah Q. Gribble, Maev Beaty, Joseph Ziegler and Bahia Watson, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
The corpulent Henry VIII is played by slim Joseph Ziegler. The statuesque and passionate Katherine is played by Maev Beaty. Henry is an exemplar of the absolute monarch. Capricious, dictatorial, selfish, egotistical and amoral, he does not need any scruples and can and does order people killed almost on a whim. He feels he is entitled to do whatever he wants with very little in the way of legal or moral constraint.
Hennig tries to show a humane side to Henry but that only happens when one agrees with him.
Parr is an intelligent and beautiful woman. She must use all her wiles to survive in a patriarchal society run by men, especially one man. She is in love with her relative Thom (Gareth Potter) but when Henry “asks” her to marry him she has no choice but to dump him. Thom is dispatched out of the country. She shows genuine love for Henry but tries to be more than a pawn in his hands. She has some influence but in the end her only weapon seems to be her sexual attraction.
Hennig dramatizes Henry’s two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth as modern teenagers and his son Edward as a youngster. Mary shows characteristics that will gain her the moniker Bloody when she becomes queen and Elizabeth gets better press because she will become the great queen.
Beaty and Ziegler give superb performances representing somewhat fictionalized historical figures in a completely different milieu. Ziegler does not look, talk or dress like Henry VIII. He is a tyrant who issues a death warrant for his wife because he disagreed with her. The sixteenth century Henry did just that but there is a problem with Hennig’s setting of the play with that happening.
The fight for women’s rights was perhaps as cogent then as it has been in the past century but I doubt if it was expressed the way Parr does in the play. Elizabeth became queen eleven years after Henry’s death but in the mindset of the day one can hardly claim a big leap forward in women’s rights. Hennig imposes a different mindset on these people that if it existed, was in its nascent form and developed slowly over the next century. In Canada, the Supreme Court ruled in 1928 that a woman is not a person eligible to sit in the Senate.
My fascination with the historical context of the play and the issues were reduced by the context. Once past that, you will found a piece of theatre that is well acted, well directed and very much worth seeing.
The Last Wife premiered in the Studio Theatre as part of the 2015 Stratford Festival with the same cast.
The Last Wife by Kate Hennig continues at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 55 Tank House Lane, Toronto, Ontario. www.soulpepper.ca