Canadian actor and writer Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife is a stimulating take on Tudor England focused on Katherine Parr, the only woman to marry King Henry VIII and survive him.
Those who appreciated Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Schiller’s Mary Stuart a few months ago will find it a fascinating prequel.
We meet Kate (played here by Nikki Shiels in her Ensemble Theatre debut) more or less at the moment she encounters Henry (Ben Wood), who takes an immediate shine to the soon-to-be-widow of a Northern noble. The man Kate would like to marry – court playboy and political schemer Thomas Seymour (Simon London) – can only look on, dismayed and outgunned.
Henry is no romantic (“People don’t want to introduce me to their daughters any more,” he jokes) and Kate – a rape survivor and thrice married – is no blushing rose. That Henry will get his way is a given, of course. His authority is absolute and his temper legendary.
But Kate boldly bargains for her future, nevertheless. Their marriage will be bound by the clauses of a contract. Her property will remain hers. Henry’s sexual appetites will be satisfied at her discretion, not his whim.
She will also have a role in the raising of Henry’s children; Edward, the young heir to the throne (Emma Chelsey); the tetchy Mary (Bishanyia Vincent), and the as yet unformed Elizabeth (Emma Harvie).
The dynamic between Kate and Henry is such that it’s hard not to be reminded of that other Kate, in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. The harder she bargains, the more Henry admires her. It almost promises to be a union of equals.
First seen at the Stratford Festival (in Ontario, Canada) in 2015, The Last Wife describes the court and sexual politics of the 16th century as though it was happening in the 21st. Hennig’s dialogue is smart-casual in tone, peppered with anachronisms and modern day idiom.
At times, Hennig has her characters talk a little too much, creating the impression of a show spinning its wheels. For the most part, though, The Last Wife is intriguing, inventive and, at times, unexpectedly funny.
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Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the story unfolds with good pace and intensity. The play’s mercurial shifts from comic to dramatic are sharp and it is very well cast.
Shiels is vivacious and commanding as Kate mollifies her ageing bull of a husband while laying down the foundations for a future where women can assume the throne.
Wood is tremendous, pitching his Henry as an Aussie backyard tyrant. Henry’s failing body (especially his ulcerated leg, which is displayed in wince-inducing detail) only makes him more capricious and fearsome.
Vincent is excellent as the sullen, sarcastic Mary. Harvie is amusingly naive as the future Queen Bess. London is very good as the suave Thom Seymour.
The Last Wife is a little long, perhaps but those left alive at its end have, by that point, sharpened your appetite for another episode in this saga of women and power. Hennig has already written it, as it happens – The Virgin Trial. It would make for a bingeworthy double bill.