By Kate Hennig
Directed by Alan Dilworth
A Soulpepper Presentation. Opened January 24, 2017.
Kate Hennig is an exceptionally fine character actress who is presently striking sparks as Margaret Thatcher opposite Fiona Reid’s Elizabeth II in The Audience. She is also a budding playwright. In her first full-length play, The Last Wife, that debuted at Stratford last season, English-born Hennig reimagines a chapter of English royal history, using historical fact as a channel for contemporary insight. Although Henry VIII had a firm mythic grip on his era, he is challenged for the dramatic centre of Hennig’s play, and his challenger is Katharine Parr, his sixth and final spouse, who outlived him and even out-manoeuvred him in radical ways. In Joseph Ziegler’s honest but unflamboyant performance, we find a king who is older, gout-ridden, authoritarian, hot-tempered, lusty, and not easily outpaced politically. But it is Katharine Parr who knowingly and daringly contests him for domestic, emotional, and sexual power. And Maev Beaty, fully into the character and text, refuses to sanitize the woman. Married to a third husband, who is sexually inadequate for her, she is involved in an affair with untitled Thomas Seymour, a man whom Gareth Potter fails to make an adequately charismatic sexual lure. Beaty nevertheless manages to be eloquently erotic, subtly powerful, and daringly avant-garde in her feminism. She has a maternal side that comforts yet controls Henry’s daughters, Mary, Bess, and Edward, and she is able to get her way with the king, while keeping her eyes steadily on the future.
Alan Dilworth’s production, pragmatically designed by Yannick Larivee and lit by Kimberly Purtell, shrewdly focusses on Henry and Katharine. Hennig’s play boldly brings English history smack dab into the modern century by using modern language and relishing an occasional anachronism. And her characters are put in modern dress as well. Neither strategy is particularly essential because a play does not uncover an essential truth merely by its language or its costuming. Nevertheless, the text is sometimes hard-edged, cynical, and grainy, and this is good if only because the production looks and sounds quite different from anything by Masterpiece Theatre. What is not so good is the coarsened texture that extends into some of the acting. While convincingly juvenile and naïve, Bahia Watson’s young Bess is never much more than a common little wilful girl. Sara Farb, Goth-elegant in hairstyle and black costume, is deliberately off-the-wall in her acting, though she does manage to be darkly droll and more than slightly sinister as Mary, an outsider not only by temperament but by deep down ambition as well. How these two young characters develop into future rival queens will undoubtedly be covered by Hennig’s next foray into English history.