The Last Wife offers a compelling contemporary take on Henry VIII, while Love’s Labour’s Lost gets a LOL revival.
The Last Wife
Studio Theatre (34 George Street East, Stratford, Ontario)
Runs to Oct. 7
$85 – $127.50
Love’s Labour’s Lost
Festival Theatre (55 Queen Street, Stratford, Ontario)
Runs to Oct. 9
$25 – $183.60
Tales of the much-married King Henry VIII and England’s Tudor dynasty never go out of fashion. The most celebrated of recent versions has been Hilary Mantel’s compulsively readable set of novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both Man Booker Prize winners, which spawned a Royal Shakespeare Company dramatization (seen this past season on Broadway) and a BBC television series that premiered earlier this year.
Now the Stratford Festival gets in on the trend—not via Mantel’s work, but with a superb new Canadian play written in the same brash spirit of historical revisionism. Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife, which opened this past weekend in the festival’s Studio Theatre, focuses on Katherine Parr, the last of Henry’s six spouses and the one that outlived him. She was also, Hennig argues, the one who most successfully stood up to Henry’s macho bullying and chipped away at his patriarchal obsession. Well-educated, the author of three books, she worked to reverse the male-only line of royal succession, paving the way for Henry’s daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, to take the throne.
If, at this point, you’re imagining a period drama with stately actors in doublets and farthingales making flowery speeches, think again. Where Mantel made the bold choice to write her novels in contemporary British English with deliberate anachronisms, Hennig goes further: not only is the language in her play modern, so are the costumes and the characters’ behaviour. This is a story from the 16th century played out as if it were happening in the present day.
Katherine, or Kate (Maev Beaty), is not unlike Mantel’s capable hero, Thomas Cromwell—she’s also shrewd and experienced and knows how to make the most of an unexpected opportunity. Twice widowed, she has embarked on a torrid affair with Sir Thomas Seymour (Gareth Potter), Henry’s handsome brother-in-law, when old Henry himself (Joseph Ziegler) decides he wants her for Queen No. 6. Kate submits to the monarch’s will—not that she has much choice—and Henry sends his rival packing, making Thom his emissary in Holland. But in return, Kate immediately begins to lay down some marital ground rules—no sex unless she consents to it—and to push her own agenda. Henry wants her to supervise the education of his son and heir, Eddie (Jonah Q. Gribble), but she convinces him to reconcile with his disowned daughters, Mary (Sara Farb) and Bess (Bahia Watson), and let her teach them as well.
She does all this as carefully and subtly as she can—after all, her temperamental husband has been known to chop off the heads of his wives when he isn’t happy with them. Henry appreciates the skilful way Kate negotiates with him and she, in turn, begins to have some sympathy for this aging, obese despot who is facing his mortality and tormented by the festering leg wound sustained in a jousting accident years before. Still, neither her ministrations to him as his nurse nor her successful stint as regent, acting brilliantly on his behalf while he wages war in France, are enough to dispel the ever-present risk of the executioner’s axe.
We’re very familiar with Henry’s first three wives, Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour, whose stories have been the ones most dramatized. So it’s a pleasure to get to know the less-famous but more admirable Katherine Parr, painted here by Hennig as a proto-feminist but also as a very human figure with whom we share the thrill and the terror of being placed in a precarious position of power. That’s especially true with Beaty’s sensitive performance. She gets us on her wavelength (to quote Leonard Cohen) right from the start, and allows us to experience Kate’s thoughts and feelings as if we were inside her skin.
She’s well-matched by Soulpepper mainstay Ziegler as Henry. You could argue that the lean, silver-haired actor, who excels in quiet melancholy, is wrong for the part of the fat, fiery-tempered king. But he uses that apparent miscasting to his advantage, letting us see Henry in a different light. If anything, Ziegler reminds you of Spencer Tracy in his films with Katharine Hepburn—his canny Henry discovers that he enjoys sparring verbally with this intellectual Kate, and you can see the delight in his eyes. The two would almost be a great couple, if it wasn’t for his tendency towards murderous rages.
Although the play has plenty of dark passages, including Kate’s lingering trauma from being raped during the northern rebellions, it isn’t all serious. Hennig adds a touch of knowing comedy in the scenes between the new queen and her royal step-children, which could be taking place around any family dinner table if the stakes weren’t so high. Farb, who is luminous as the star of the festival’s The Diary of Anne Frank, relishes her contrary role as the cynical, sarcastic Mary. Watson is a funnily impetuous teenage Bess whose sharp brain is cultivated by Kate, as if she foresaw that she was training the future Elizabeth I. Young actor Gribble is endearing as the gentle Eddie, the frail twig on which Henry has hung all his dynastic hopes.
Keeping with the play’s domestic theme, The Last Wife marks the first Stratford collaboration between the wife-and-husband team of Beaty and director Alan Dilworth, a couple already well known for their work together in Toronto (most recently, in last season’s The De Chardin Project). He complements her strong acting with a supple staging, using a few sticks of furniture (notably a table that doubles as a bed) and propelling Hennig’s crisp narrative with a flurry of quick set changes. Yannik Larivée’s design locates the action literally behind the throne—glimpsed between parted curtains upstage—and whimsically in a room where an upside-down model of a palace hangs above the actors like a chandelier. Hennig has, indeed, up-ended conventional portrayals of Henry VIII and Katherine Parr, letting us see them with fresh eyes.
If you’re looking for those aforesaid doublets, farthingales, and flowery speeches, look no further than the production of Love’s Labour’s Lost that has just opened at the Festival Theatre. Only, “flowery speeches” scarcely begins to describe the prodigious wordplay of Shakespeare’s most linguistically playful comedy. To do its script justice requires classical actors of the highest calibre and, happily, they can also be found in this gloriously giddy staging, directed by the distinguished Canadian-born British director John Caird.
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, many of the characters are drunk on love and just about all of them are drunk on words. Berowne (Mike Shara) and his fellow lords have joined their king, Ferdinand of Navarre (Sanjay Talwar), in taking a vow of chastity so they can spend three years in scholarly pursuits. Cue the young princess of France (Ruby Joy) and her cute ladies in waiting, who show up at the men’s retreat and quickly turn them into puddles of romantic mush.
While the lovesick lords turn from studying the classics to composing purple poetry, a boastful Spanish don (Juan Chioran) also finds himself besotted and sets out to woo his dairymaid dream girl (Jennifer Mogbock) with the aid of his whip-smart page (Gabriel Long). Love letters are written and fall into the wrong hands; a grammar-obsessed schoolmaster (Tom Rooney) is consulted; the lords disguise themselves as Russians to court the ladies (only to be outwitted by them); and it all reaches a shambolic climax with a hilariously ludicrous historical pageant to rival the “Pyramus and Thisbe” performance in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
It’s impossible to say who gives the most delicious performance in this comic feast. It could be Chioran as a lovably quixotic Don Armado, but then again he’s almost upstaged by his frighteningly precocious little page, Moth, played by no-less-precocious child actor Long. Or what about Rooney, that master of solemn silliness (see his Polonius in the festival’s Hamlet), who is the soul of self-serious pedantry as the Latin-parsing Holofernes? And that’s not even considering Shara’s charmingly skeptical Berowne or the peppery Sarah Afful as Rosaline, the elusive object of his affections.
What isn’t in dispute is Caird’s ability to take a rich but challenging Shakespearean text and turn it into a surprising, LOL treat. Caird, whose illustrious credits include co-directing the original Royal Shakespeare Company production of Les Misérables, was born in Edmonton and raised in Montreal, but for one reason or another he has never worked at the Stratford Festival before. After this dazzling debut, we can only hope he’ll be back.