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BWW Review: The World Premiere of THE LAST WIFE at Stratford Festival

The World Premiere of THE LAST WIFE, written by Kate Hennig and directed by Alan Dilworth, took place earlier this month at the Stratford Festival's Studio Theatre. I recently had the opportunity to see the show, and found it to present an intriguing combination of history, drama, humour and feminism.

THE LAST WIFE is the story of Katherine Parr-the last wife of King Henry VIII, told with a contemporary flare. The play spans from the day the King asks Katherine to marry him, until after both of them have died. Maev Beaty portrays Katherine, or 'Kate' as she is called in the play. The combination of Ms. Hennig's writing and Ms. Beaty's portrayal, allow this historical figure to be seen a three-dimensional human being-possibly, for the first time. So little is widely known about her, yet if you look in the history books, and see the influence she left on the future Queens Mary and Elizabeth, it should be very clear that Katherine Parr was a woman of strength and substance. Ms. Beaty's portrayal is of a woman who is both strong and vulnerable. We see Kate try to maintain her personal beliefs and display her strength and intelligence, whilst also knowing that if she steps over an undefined line and into his bad books, the King could have her executed like he did with the majority of his previous wives. This indeed almost happens, and Kate is forced to use her sexuality to change the King's mind.

As King Henry, Joseph Ziegler does not shy away from showing the flaws and the ugliness of the character's treatment of his wife and his children, but he is also able to allow his humanity to shine through. This is not a bad man. This is a man who was raised in a certain system and who is now expected to have complete control over that system. A fear of losing that control or of appearing weak appear to be the driving force behind the decisions he makes. With his physical health failing, this fear seems ever more present.

As the King's daughters, Mary and Elizabeth (or Bess), Sara Farb and Bahia Watson are fantastic. Future Queens, Mary I and Elizabeth I are just teenagers in this production, and it is fun to see them teenagers! As Mary-later to be known as 'Bloody Mary', Sara Farb has a sharp and dark sense of humour. Her general dislike for her family is somehow endearing and her respect for Kate is at first, subtle but very clear. One of the most poignant moments in the play is when Kate, fearing that the King is to have her executed, asks Mary, who had witnessed two step-mothers be executed already, what she could do to avoid suffering the same fate. What a conversation to witness! The writing by Ms. Hennig was very powerful and although we do not know if such a conversation ever really happened, one has to assume to it must have. Bahia Watson is delightful as young Bess. Full of life, clever and eager to learn, this is a version of Elizabeth I that we have not seen before. It is so interesting to think of these historical figures in new ways and to remember that they were impressionable youths once upon a time.

Rounding out the cast are Gareth Potter as Thomas Seymour, a love interest for Kate both before and after Henry came into the picture; and young Prince Edward, or Eddie, played by Jonah Q. Gribble. As Thomas, Mr. Potter presents another flawed, human character, whose life is intertwined in interesting ways with each of the other characters. As sweet, young, Eddie, Mr. Gribble is a scene-stealer.

The design by Yannik Larivee was very interesting. The most notable piece was a gorgeous miniature castle, with very fine detail, hanging above the stage. What was interesting was that it was upside down. During intermission, I engaged some fellow theatre-goers in conversation about why the castle was upside down. Was the idea to have it symbolize the 'upside down' nature of the kingdom-because, as one theatre-goer pointed out, there were times in the British Monarch that seemed far more upside down. Another theatre-goer suggested that perhaps the spires pointing downward represented the risk that at any time, someone like Katherine could be killed by the 'King' or 'Kingdom'. The pay-off to our analysis came in the second half, when Katherine was pushing for Mary to become queen rather than her young brother, when a character told her that she "cannot just flip an entire system on its head". Of course we all know that this is indeed what she did help to do. Mary and Elizabeth both ended up ruling England...and gained significant reputations while doing it! I think this design choice was a good one. I also enjoy that it had the audience talking!

Overall, the play is very strong. With a rich and complex story to draw from, actors who are able to breath life into historical figures who have, over the years, often become caricatures, and an underlying message that the concept of feminism has existed far longer than people tend to think; this play feels very important. Go see it....IF you can find a ticket!

THE LAST WIFE plays in repertory until October 7.

Photo Credit: David Hou

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From This Author Lauren Gienow