BWW Review: The Stratford Festival's MOTHER'S DAUGHTER Brilliantly Brings a Beloved New Trilogy to a Fine Close
MOTHER'S DAUGHTER, the third and final installment of playwright Kate Hennig's 'Queenmaker Trilogy' had its world premiere at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre Friday night. The play follows the reign of Mary I Queen of England and like the two previous instalments, it is reimagined (or perhaps 'restored') to be told from the perspective of the women at the centre of the story. Directed by Alan Dilworth, this production provides a fitting end to the intimate story of tradition, family, faith, imperfection and sisterhood that audiences first became immersed in 4 years ago.
For this play, audiences are introduced to new portrayals of Mary and Bess after previously seeing Sara Farb and Bahia Watson in the roles in the Stratford productions of the first two parts of the trilogy. Shannon Taylor is our new Mary, and Jessica B. Hill portrays both Bess and her mother Anne. Both actresses make the roles their own and build on the brilliant foundations that their predecessors had laid out for their characters. From the very beginning, I have always felt that the heart of this trilogy was the complex relationship between these two sisters. This relationship is fittingly explored even further in this play, and by the end, it seems clear that Hennig sees their bond as the heart of the story as well.
Taylor allows the audience to be in Mary's mind as she prepares to be the first woman to take the thrown. Unlike her sister Bess, this has not been her primary aspiration, but at the same time, she sees it as a birth right that others have been plotting to take away from her since childhood, and an opportunity to restore the kingdom to the Catholic faith, which she is deeply devoted to. Through Taylor's performance, we see a subtle yearning in Mary to be legitimized in the eyes of the people. As Mary's reign progresses, this transforms into a not so subtle desire to restore and maintain Catholicism in the nation-leading to some of her more drastic decisions. The highlight of Taylor's performance is in a scene where she is laying on a table. Her captivating monologue about "holding the wand" is superb. Mary's humour, passion, faith, and personal damage are all on display here, and Taylor is captivating.
There are a few moments where the dialogue written for Mary-particularly random utterances or slang-doesn't seem to naturally come out of Taylor's mouth. After a few days of reflection, I still cannot decide whether it is simply jarring to hear a Queen of England speak in that vernacular or if Taylor doesn't quite sell the lines. Regardless, these moments are infrequent, and overall, the modern dialogue has been one of the highlights of the entire trilogy.
One way we as an audience are able to delve deep into Mary's psyche, is through her conversations with her long dead mother, Catherine of Aragon (Irene Pool) who begins appearing to her in visions. This is an effective way to see Mary reflect on her childhood and upbringing, and her desire to make her mother proud. Irene Poole is excellent as Catherine---or, her Spanish name Catalina, as she is listed as here. Poole is also playing this role in Henry VIII, which makes her appearance here as a 'ghost' seem somehow less jarring. Perhaps it is because we immediately feel a Shakespearean connection, in which ghosts are not out of place at all, or perhaps it is because the presence of this character in another play makes it abundantly clear how much of an influence she would have had on her young daughter, making it more than plausible that the memory of her would be very strong at this time in Mary's life.
In the previous instalment of this trilogy, we saw Bess' cunning and ambition front and centre. In this play, Jessica B. Hill gives us a Bess who is certainly equally as cunning and measured as she puts her ambitions and beliefs aside in order to try to avoid being seen as a threat to her sister's thrown. We also see her exasperation when Mary doubts her. It is never clear exactly what Bess' main goals are, but it does seem evident that the love she has for her sister is very real, and Hill is excellent at portraying Bess' hurt when Mary questions this and doubts her motives (even though history says she is warranted in doing so!).
The other major player in this part of the story of the Tudors is Lady Jane Grey, portrayed by Andrea Rankin. Jane is a fascinating foil to Mary and the scenes between Taylor and Rankin are incredibly heartbreaking, as they discover that they are equally as devoted to their Christian denominations, meaning that Jane, who the late king chose as his successor for religious reasons, will always be a threat to Mary's throne.
Unlike HENRY VIII which features lavish costumes and set design, the design for this play is toned down. Given that the entire production is a more intimate exploration of the women closest to the crown, this minimalist choice by designer Lorenzo Savoini is very effective. Also effective are the sometimes white, sometimes red lights bordering all entrances to the stage. At times this border pulses like a heartbeat-adding to the frequent heart and blood imagery in the play. At other times, specifically when the 'ghost' of Catalina appears or leaves, the lights flicker as if to announce that something paranormal is happening.
The play rightfully ends with the sisters reflecting on their reigns, their relationship and on how history has remembered them. This is arguably one of the most fascinating relationships in history, despite the details being few and far between. This trilogy's interpretation of who Mary and Elizabeth were, finally gives them the layers that the pages in the history books simply could not.
MOTHER'S DAUGHTER continues in repertory at the Studio Theatre until October 13th
Photo Credit: David Hou