Reviews / Theatre

Review: The Last Wife came at the right time

The gist of Kate Hennig’s play isn’t soft to focus. It’s sharp and it’s heavy.

I’ve been baring the weight of Hennig’s play, The Last Wife, since I saw it at Soulpepper with a (very good) cup of coffee.

As we enter the marriage of England’s King Henry VIII and Katherine Parr, we are repeatedly forced to swallow the big pill: that “patriarchy is a natural, organizational principle”, as Henry (Joseph Ziegler) spit at one point in the play. This construct seems to be binding, but the play illuminates the glory of Kate’s lady powers that allow her to evade the 16th century’s prevailing misogyny.

Katherine (Maev Beaty), or “Kate”, is called on to marry Henry like she’s made of pretty porcelain that he’s picked off of the shelf. He commands her hand in marriage, but she does not marry for love, as she already has a sweetheart: the endearing Thom (Gareth Potter). She entertains the idea of being Queen because of the power that comes with the title. Apprehensively, she enters the agreement. Through her lens, we experience the final months of Henry’s rule in a not-so-historical manner.

Having previously disowned his daughters Mary (Sara Farb) and Bess (Bahia Watson), Kate’s mandatory compensation for the marriage is that Henry allows her to get the girls back in line of succession. Kate pulls them away from their needlepoint and into philosophy lessons, along with Henry’s son Eddie (Joan Q. Gribble). She continues to do this when Henry goes away to war in France and she adopts the role of regent, all the while instilling feminist wisdom into the brains of her stepchildren.

Kate controls the hard-to-cross boundaries of her sexual relationship with her husband throughout the play, but when Henry returns from war, their long-time longing leads to them sharing their first on-stage moments of honest romance. From shaping Eddie further into King-material, to strategizing the arrival of appropriate arms into France, allowing Henry to drag himself home, she had proved her worth. From Kate’s perspective, since she held down the fort so tightly, she had become his equal. But when she expects Henry to grant her more rights, his ego is bruised.  Fuelled by fear of Henry giving her head the chop she plays a silent and compliant queen until his reign comes to a close.

Luckily, I brought a friend with me to the play that has extensive knowledge in Elizabethan history. Since I didn’t have the most solid understanding of Henry and his 500 wives (okay, six), it was difficult to tell exactly how contemporary they made the storyline.  Although the play isn’t meant to be an advanced history lesson, I’d say that the storyline is most gripping if you have some knowledge of 16th century history.

Hennig’s script is bursting with golden sub-text that begs to be heard, in modern-day language, might I add. Perhaps the reason why the play had such an effect on me was because of the remarkable timing. I was feeling helpless that day because of the current inconceivable fragility of women’s rights in our neighbouring country, and Kate demonstrated a hero that I want to channel in the impending months of rallying and protest for the rights of American women.

Though Maev Beaty embodied this ruthless character excellently, the stop-and-start motion of the play left me feeling disconnected from her character’s heart. I had an easier time connecting with the emotional depths of the other characters, even Joseph Ziegler’s. He’s witty in an offensively outspoken kind of way, leaving absolutely nothing open to interpretation. That’s not to say I didn’t grasp Kate’s message. I did, and it was moving.

With minute costume changes, quick set changes, and a very small chain of characters, the play was rooted deeply in communicating a stripped down, big-picture message. The impact still resonates within me sincerely, and sadly the issue presented isn’t one that we can take as just a piece of history. This is happening now. Patriarchy is sturdily in place, and we need to work hard, like Kate did.

The Last Wife runs until Feb. 11 at Soul Pepper Theatre.

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