BWW Review: THE VIRGIN TRIAL is Politically-Charged Family Drama at its Finest
Soulpepper's production of Kate Hennig's THE VIRGIN TRIAL, originally produced by the Stratford Festival, brings an investigation of power, morals, and misconduct to the stage. The gripping reimagining looks at Henry VIII's second daughter Elizabeth I (Bahia Watson), a 15-year-old princess who's a few positions behind in line for the throne and extremely charming, if not untrustworthy.
The play follows the interrogation of Bess, centred on her rumoured involvement in the attempted murder of her half-brother, King Edward VI, conducted by Lord Protector Ted (Nigel Bennett) and noblewoman Eleanor (Yanna McIntosh). The investigators contrast wonderfully, as Bennett's chipper personality brings out the coldness of McIntosh's approach to questioning the young princess, and both actors give their characters plenty of room to shift and transform throughout the play.
As an accused plot comes to light, Bess's relationship with the much-older and married Thom (Brad Hodder) is thrust into focus, with the originally blurred lines of their plans clearing with each flashback. Hodder plays Thom to be increasingly unlikable in an overly charming-bordering-on-slimy way, and while Bess's interest in him seems to be purely a crush, there is a real darkness brought to the story in Hodder's fantastically slow devolution into desperation and mania.
Watson commands attention throughout the play as Bess, flipping between innocence and tyranny and weaving the complexity of Bess's nature throughout the story. She portrays the 15-year-old with stubborn pride, looking away from her fellow actors to suggest an unwillingness to talk - or listen - to their concerns. The repetition of the fact that Bess "doesn't feel anything," stands out as obvious compared to the show's otherwise secretive tone, but this slight scripting issue doesn't slow her down. Watson chews up the script and spits it back at her in-story accusers, dominating scenes whether she's sat ramrod straight at a table or curled up on the ground over a bucket.
A dynamic and comedic ensemble fleshes out the cast, with Bess's advisors Ashley (Laura Condlln) and Parry (André Morin) deliver some of the funniest lines early on, transitioning to provide tension as the interrogation continues. The use of security-style cameras on the live actors, separated from the stage by semi-transparent curtains, adds a great layer to the set design (Yannick Larivee), and provides a few interesting acting opportunities to the actors involved, all who use the unique set up well.
The only other member of Bess's family to appear onstage is her half sister Mary (Helen Knight), who deadpans her delivery of both funny and dark dialogue in true Catholic fashion. As the sole voice of reason, Knight puts up a fight against Watson's snobby Bess, ignoring threats against her and her beliefs to ensure the wellbeing of the young girl.
THE VIRGIN TRIAL is gifted with a complex script which is utilized to its fullest by a well-rounded cast, and the result is a two-hour investigative drama rooted in one of the most complex families in history. It leans into the natural tension of family dynamics and politics for an interesting look into the struggle of a young woman who must decide between those who love her and potential greatness.
THE VIRGIN TRIAL at Soulpepper runs through February 3 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto, ON.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://soulpepper.ca/performances/the-virgin-trial/6174