BWW Review: THE VIRGIN TRIAL is an Engrossing Treat at the Stratford Festival

BWW Review: THE VIRGIN TRIAL is an Engrossing Treat at the Stratford Festival

The second part of a trilogy of plays penned by Kate Hennig is currently engrossing audiences at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre. THE VIRGIN TRIAL is a companion to 2015's THE LAST WIFE, which also had its world premiere at the Studio Theatre. This play is set during Elizabeth I's teenage years, when she was the subject of a scandal involving her relationship with her uncle/step-father. Like, THE LAST WIFE, this play takes liberties in terms of historical accuracy, because, quite frankly, we don't actually know exactly what happened behind closed doors. Also like the first play, this one is from the perspective of the women. The performances are brilliant and the writing is clever and witty. This production should not be missed!

Although it is not at all necessary to have seen THE LAST WIFE in order to fully immerse oneself in the story of THE VIRGIN TRIAL, a benefit of having seen the former, is that one can quickly jump right back into the world that Hennig has created, without initially adjusting to the lack of British accents, the sparse, yet effective set design by Yannick Larivee, the general sense of timelessness to the play, etc. Otherwise, there is a bit of an adjustment period, but it is a very quick one because we are immediately thrust into the centre of a scandal of epic proportions, as we watch a young teenager try to navigate an intimidating interrogation about an attempt on the life of her young brother (The King). Bahia Watson reprises her role as Elizabeth I, or 'Bess', which she originated in THE LAST WIFE. Here, she is a bit older, and exploring what it means to be a young woman-both in terms of her sexuality as well as with regard to her responsibilities as a royal. It is unclear through much of the play how innocent Bess is when it comes to potential flirtations with Thom (Brad Hodder), who, after proposing marriage to her in a letter, married her stepmother, Katherine Parr. The play jumps back and forth in time. The audience will hear about an incident during the interrogation of Bess, and then see how it actually played out. As this progresses, we see just how cunning and clever Bess is. It also becomes clear that her driving force is not love or emotion, but intellect and power-not because she has a lust for power, but because she knows she would make a good leader. The fact that we as an audience know that Elizabeth I went on to rule England for over 44 years, provides an interesting layer to the story, because we know that she's right.

Watson is fantastic as Bess. She plays her with a youthful and genuine innocence in combination with the aforementioned cunning, and does so in a way that makes it clear that a person can possess both traits. The way she innocently admits to her older half-sister (who is in line to the thrown ahead of her) that she has every intention of being the Queen of England and doing what she needs to do to get there, is simultaneously impressive, hilarious, and disturbing. Every scene that Bess and Mary (an excellent Sara Farb) have together in this play is fantastic. Hennig plays with the fact that the audience is aware of who these young women will eventually become, and how they have been perceived based on the history books. The known history of these women makes genuine bond of sisterhood that she has given them incredibly intriguing, and at times, quite funny...even in what would otherwise be very dark moments.

The company is small but mighty. As Eleanor, Bess' main interrogator, Yanna McIntosh is deliciously 'no-nonsense' and downright intimidating. Nigel Bennett is also great as Ted, the Lord Protector (and brother of Thom). This character is another example of someone with multiple motives who keeps his true loyalties close to the vest. Brad Hodder's Thom is at times charming, and at other times infuriating, and Andre Morin and Laura Condlln are witty and moving as Bess' faithful servants, Parry and Ashley.

Director, Alan Dilworth manages to masterfully tell this story through different moments in the timeline without it ever being confusing. As a personal side note: I very much appreciate Hennig and Dilworth's choice to not include the scene in which Thom kills the King's dog. I was far too concerned that we might actually see this play out, and was so relieved that we only had to hear about it!

This production has already been extended multiple times due to demand. If you can get a ticket...do it! I do recommend briefly brushing up on the very basics of Tudor history. The specific details aren't necessary because many have been altered in this play anyways...but general knowledge allows for a better appreciation for the foreshadowing included in the play.

THE VIRGIN TRIAL continues in Repertory until September 30th.

Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann


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