The Virgin Trial is a fast-paced and fascinating historical drama

Bahia Watson and a regal cast are superb in the second instalment of Kate Hennig's Queenmaker Trilogy

THE VIRGIN TRIAL by Kate Hennig (Soulpepper). At the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House). Runs to February 3. $36-$107. 416-866-8666. See listing. Rating: NNN

Fascinating and fast-paced, The Virgin Trial is the second instalment in Kate Hennig’s Queenmaker Trilogy. The plays offer a modern reimagining of the Tudor period, in which Hennig upends the usual narrative of patriarchal bloodlines by giving voice to some of the era’s intrepid women.

While the first play (The Last Wife) centred on Katherine Parr, King Henry VIII’s final wife, The Virgin Trial takes up the family’s story soon after Henry’s death and from his teenaged daughter Elizabeth’s point of view.

Young Bess (Bahia Watson) gets caught up in a scandalous relationship with her stepmother Katherine’s new husband, Thom (Brad Hodder). Bess’s virtue is questioned as politics rage and the two are put on trial by Thom’s brother Ted (Nigel Bennett) and Ted’s diabolical apprentice, Eleanor (Yanna McIntosh). Since Bess’s royal position secures her some leniency in the proceedings, her supporters Ashley (Laura Condlln) and Parry (André Morin) endure the brunt of the brutal interrogations.

The play’s anachronistic elements, in language choice and the use of modern costumes and props (such as a teddy bear and a box of chocolates), sometimes distract from the story but also serve as a clever way to connect the past to the present.

In the first act, Hennig’s non-linear script feels jarring at times, but it’s mesmerizing once the story gets underway, with rapid-fire dialogue and the escalating tensions of the trial. Although the evil characters enthrall with their viciousness, they do lack dimension. Bess, however, is so intricately constructed that the audience swiftly becomes invested in her outcome.

Watson captures the complexity of a young woman navigating burgeoning adulthood and her social standing, and in the brief scenes with her half-sister, Mary (Helen Knight), she displays her vulnerability. The supporting cast is excellent, particularly McIntosh in the sinister torture scenes that get projected in eerie black-and-white on Yannik Larivée’s stark set.

Alan Dilworth’s direction is sometimes clunky and obvious, such as the revelation of Bess’s pregnancy, but the play’s overall pacing accentuates the intensity and suspense in the script.

The trilogy’s final play is set to open in May at the Stratford Festival. The focus will shift to Bess’s half-sister, Mary. History tells us she was a force to be reckoned with, so it should make for a bloody good conclusion.

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