>>> Review: The Last Wife

Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth spouse, is a fascinating king- and queen-maker in Kate Hennig’s excellent Stratford play

THE LAST WIFE by Kate Hennig (Stratford Festival). At the Studio Theatre, Stratford. Runs in rep to October 7 see stratfordfestival.ca for schedule. $25-$195, stu from $18. 1-800-567-1600. Rating: NNNNN

Kate Hennig’s splendid The Last Wife is a small-scale but intense domestic story, filled with stress, power trips, love, fights and manipulation.

But hers isn’t your usual family. The characters are the king, queen and future rulers of Tudor England.

At its centre is Katherine Parr (Maev Beaty), the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII (Joseph Ziegler), who outlived her husband and married her lover, Thom (Gareth Potter), within months of Henry’s death.

In Hennig’s feminist tale, Parr – one of many C/Katherines in Henry’s life – attempts to share in running his kingdom and, just as importantly, convinces the impulsive, volatile ruler to accept his previous wives’ daughters, Mary (Sara Farb) and Elizabeth (Bahia Watson), as family and part of the chain of Tudor succession. Of course, in this patriarchal court, they rank below the young prince, Eddie (Jonah Q. Gribble).

Told in a series of short, filmic scenes, the action moves quickly from Henry’s “courting” – read demanding – of Katherine, her success in reinstating the young women Henry considers bastards, taking some control of the country when Henry goes to war in France, and the misstep she makes in thinking she can retain that control.

Though the material is historically accurate, the play’s tone and some of its language are contemporary. We could be watching a dynastic family in today’s business world, but the stakes are much higher and played out on a national stage.

Alan Dilworth’s expert direction rightly focuses on the domestic story, eschewing grandeur for the human element of shifting relationships. It’s matched by Yannick Larivée’s intentionally simple set, lit by Kimberly Purtell – a multi-use table and some chairs, a curtain upstage that parts to show the back of a throne, suggesting we’re mostly in private rather than public quarters – which is literally topped by an upside-down model of Hampton Court the male world of the palace is turned on its head by the possibility of women in power.

The script, filled with humour and passion, offers one powerful confrontation after another as well as the tenderness and trust that grows between Katherine and her newfound daughters. Even the bullying Henry has a protective side, revealed when he talks about Jane Seymour, his third wife, who died giving birth to Eddie.

You couldn’t have a better cast, including the charming Gribble, whose Eddie can’t stand to listen or watch when his parents fight at the dinner table, and Potter’s initially flirtatious and open but later worldly-wise Thom. Farb’s rebellious, acerbic Mary, dressed in goth black, and Watson’s girlish, instinctively intelligent Elizabeth are first-rate.

Ziegler’s mercurial Henry is never predictable he occasionally reveals a sensitive side that surprises his wife and the others around him. Still, when Henry says to Katherine, “if you tell anybody, I’ll have to kill you,” we’re not sure – nor is she – whether he’s joking.

But it’s Beaty who burnishes this production, her Katherine always aware of walking on a sword’s edge yet never hesitant to forward an agenda for herself, her husband and her kids. Complex in weaving that agenda, she allows various emotions to wash across her face as Katherine considers different courses and chooses one over another.

What Katherine wants, and arguably gets, is a real partnership with her older husband: a sense that he acknowledges her use and power in his realm and his life.

Still, the play ends on a note of tension among the remaining characters. And that’s a good thing – Hennig has plans for more scripts based on these fascinating characters.

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