SEPTEMBER 2023 | Volume 231
Photo credit: Nancy Caldwell.
Anticipating the start of a new Vancouver theatre season, I always wonder what United Players has in store. Typically, the first of the subscription theatres to open, they are not a full Equity company but their productions are almost always highly professional and their choice of plays judicious and challenging. Kicking off Sarah Rodgers’ first full season as Artistic Director, Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife doesn’t disappoint.
The first in Hennig’s trilogy of plays about the lives of the Tudor queens, all of which premiered at the Stratford Festival between 2015 and 2019,The Last Wife focusses on Catherine Parr, or Kate (Courtney Shields), the sixth and last wife of England’s King Henry VIII (Matthew Bissett). He was her fourth husband. She reigned from 1543 until Henry’s death in 1547. Kate followed him less than two years later, dying in childbirth.
Hennig sticks to historical fact but has the characters speak in contemporary English, including substantial expletives. She shrinks the scenario down to Henry’s immediate family, including his three children: Mary (Junita Thiessen), daughter of Catherine of Aragon; Anne Boleyn’s daughter Elizabeth, or Bess (Lauren Alberico); and Edward aka Eddie (Rickie Wang), Henry’s only son, by Jane Seymour. The sole outsider is Thomas Seymour, or Thom (Mehdi Lamrini), Jane’s brother, courtier, sea captain, and would-be lover of Kate.
At the opening, Kate’s current husband is about to die and she is being courted by Thom. But Henry says he wants her and no one says no to murderous King Henry. Kate is smart and tough, but notwithstanding hiskingly power, Bissett’s Henry is a brute and twice this Kate’s size. She’ll have to marry him, but will do so, as far as possible, on her own terms, and she’s determined to make this a productive union.
The play proceeds as a feminist parable, but there’s nothing heavy-handed about Hennig’s approach or that of director Laura McLean. Kate carefully feels her way around Henry, learning to nurse his gangrenous leg and avoid his explosively violent fits of anger. They soon develop something like a genuinely affectionate relationship, even in bed where Kate insists that only she initiate sex, having been traumatized by an earlier rape.
A major part of Kate’s project is to convince Henry that, as a woman, she is fully capable of aiding his statecraft. She makes some progress in this regard, but Henry remains skeptical, and at various times she is blocked by his all-male council and even by Thom Seymour. But her primary role, from Henry’s perspective, is to educate his son and heir, Eddie. Kate takes on that job but insists on also parenting Mary and Bess, the two bitter daughters that Henry denigrates and rejects.
Kate’s relationship with them, and her determination to get Henry to acknowledge their legitimacy and humanity, becomes the central thrust of the play. Mary and Bess, the future Queen Elizabeth I, are the last characters standing. And their personal dramas become increasingly interesting. Tempestuous Mary loathes her father, resists Kate’s attempts to help her, and purports to hate her half-sister. Little Bess is more malleable, welcoming Kate’s surrogate mothering, and developing the skills Kate insists a woman will need if she takes the throne. Eddie, the youngest, remains sweetly oblivious. His short-lived kingship will end with his death at age 16.
The acting ranges from very good to terrific. Bissett’s Henry is a monstrous tyrant, a bully, and a man trapped within both his public persona as king and his distended dying body. Bissett fills the full range from terrifying, with his volcanic temper, to almost sympathetic as he reluctantly finds rare genuine human contact with Kate. Shields very effectively navigates a similar range, making the best of her reluctant marriage, practicing the pragmatics of court politics and teaching them to her step-daughters, and dealing with her powerful forbidden romantic feelings for Thom.
Thiessen’s Mary and Alberico’s Bess offer equally strong performances in these smaller but crucial roles, beautifully delineating their characters and constantly reminding us of Henry’s offences against them and their mothers.
Wang’s Eddie is pretty adorable, though you wonder how a son of Henry would have turned out so sweet. Lamrini’s Thom is the most problematic character—loyal courtier? would-be traitor? ambitious pedophile? solid romantic partner? He’s the play’s wild card, and Lamrini plays him slick and slippery.
Sydney Cavanagh’s contemporary costumes work well, and Ryan Cormack’s simple set, with pieces that can easily be wheeled or carried on and off, allows the many scene changes to occur without loss of momentum.United Players’ The Last Wife is smart theatre, compelling and well executed, perhaps a half-hour too long but a promising opening for this new season.
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