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article imageReview: Soulpepperʼs ʻThe Last Wifeʼ is a Tudor tale for our times Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Jan 25, 2017 in Entertainment
Toronto - Kate Hennig’s “The Last Wife” may be ostensibly about Henry VIII’s marriage to Katherine Parr, but it’s misleading to view the play as a history lesson. Considering recent world events, it seems to be about now more than any other period.
A big hit at the Stratford Festival in 2015, The Last Wife made its Toronto debut last night, courtesy of the Soulpepper theatre company – and the timing is perfect. Just a few days after the worldwide Women’s March and the inauguration of Donald Trump, the time is ripe for a domestic drama about a strong-willed woman standing up to a tyrannical male political leader. Thatʼs why Hennig’s and director Alan Dilworth’s revisionist approach doesn’t seem out of place – not only in the modern-day costumes and language, but also in the progressive tone.
And it’s all made believable through an intelligent, passionate performance by Maev Beaty as Parr – or rather, Kate, a modernized version of the last of King Henry’s six wives who serves as Hennig’s mouthpiece for contemporary feminist ideals. Sparring with Beaty is Soulpepper regular Joseph Ziegler as the infamous English king, whom Hennig imagines as surprisingly three-dimensional and self-aware. “I do as I please. I’m like a child that way,” he tells his new bride, and Ziegler imbues him with occasional droll good humour – although it tends to give way to arrogance and threats.
Kate’s actually in love with untitled royal subject Thom Seymour (Gareth Potter), but King Henry pressures his way into her life; he grabs and kisses Kate right upon meeting her, barely even waiting for introductions. Kate is understandably reluctant, aware of his previous marriage record and knowing he’ll reward any perceived betrayal by relieving her of her head. When she does agree to wed him, she insists on the condition that “I have to lead” in the bedroom, because of her trauma from sexual assault in a previous marriage.
But once she’s in the royal household, Kate finds other ways to lead. Assigned to educate the royal children – Eddie (Jonah Q. Gribble), Mary (Sara Farb) and Bess (Bahia Watson) – she uses her new position to negotiate with Henry to sign an act restoring the girls’ claims to the throne, paving the way for the future reign of Queen Elizabeth. Kate also becomes regent of England and manages things smoothly when the king goes off to war in France. There are times when her boldness backfires and nearly sends her straight to the axe, but she ends up being the wife that survives Henry. (That should not be a spoiler if you know your basic Tudor history.)
With humour thrown into the mix of high-stakes drama and suspense, The Last Wife often plays more like a series of modern family squabbles than a period piece, due to Hennig’s blunt, colloquial dialogue and Dilworth’s straightforward staging. (It may be the first Tudor-set play in which Henry tells a woman that he has “the hots” for her.) Hennig doesn’t try to disguise the script’s feminist themes in any way, of course; much of the plot revolves around Kate lobbying to get Henry’s daughters to grab and hold onto the power that should be their right. “You are so close to the crown. You are so close to showing us what you can do,” she tells Mary and Bess at one point, preceding the Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It” iconography by about four hundred years.
Beaty is the best reason to see this production. She’s the play’s life force, filling Kate with emotion, determination, wisdom and a knack for saving her skin when it really matters. Ziegler isn’t as powerful, but he makes his cranky Henry VIII unusually sympathetic for a murderous tyrant; you sense that his megalomaniac tendencies and misogynistic beliefs aren’t so much his fault as that of the time and environment. When he makes complaints like, “If I can’t control my household, how can I control the whole country?” you see where he’s coming from, while also having enough twenty-first-century enlightenment to know why he’s misguided. Think of Archie Bunker with more intelligence and less racism.
As for the supporting cast, Potter is more than adequate, if a little stiff, as the frustrated “other man” Thom, while Sara Farb’s temperamental Mary has an off-putting bitter quality that probably has more to do with the writing than her acting. Watson plays the young Bess with a childish naiveté that’s funny and charming at times, although it’s sometimes hard to imagine her turning into the strong and powerful queen she grows up to be. Yannick Larivée’s minimal set includes a detailed replica of Hampton Court Palace hanging upside-down from the ceiling; it’s probably too obvious a symbol of Kate’s effect on the royal order, but it’s interesting to look at, at least.
The Last Wife may disappoint playgoers who were hoping for a regal costume drama rather than a contemporary political discourse. But many fine plays, books and movies set in previous periods work mainly because under the surface, they’re really about the present: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible comes to mind, as does Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde. And in an age when alpha-male Trumpism is still yanking the carpet out from under gender equality in the western world, Hennig’s vision is a bleak reminder that after centuries of supposed enlightenment, things haven’t changed all that much.
The Last Wife runs at Torontoʼs Young Centre for the Performing Arts until February 11.
More about Theatre, Toronto, soulpepper, Henry viii, katherine parr
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