What: The Last Wife
Where: Belfry Theatre
When: To Oct. 16
Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of five)
If anyone was a poster-boy for misogyny, it was Henry VIII. The Tudor king’s reputation paints him as a rip-roaring philanderer who rapaciously went through six wives … and had a couple executed along the way.
In her 2015 play The Last Wife, Stratford playwright Kate Hennig focuses on Henry’s final spouse. Most of us know little about Catherine Parr. But, as Hennig reminds us, she was a fascinating person. Parr was an intelligent, highly educated woman who pushed for the Succession Act — which momentously meant Henry finally acknowledged his daughters Mary and Elizabeth as successors to the throne.
The Last Wife is an audacious, clever play. Hennig’s drama with comic touches catapults Catherine (dubbed Kate), Elizabeth (dubbed Bess), Mary and Henry into a modern setting.
So don’t go expecting a traditional period entertainment with Tudor costumes à la A Man for All Seasons.
Kate (Celine Stubel) is portrayed as a take-no-guff proto-feminist so brilliant and politically astute, Henry seems like a dancing bear by comparison. She’s the full deal: a sexy, feisty woman in cocktail dresses who juggles a lover on the side.
No longer the corpulent icon, Henry VIII (Oliver Becker) is a sharp-suited bully who could be any tough-talking businessman on a Vancouver street. The dialogue is surprisingly colloquial. Henry says things such as “you betcha” and “Let’s hope the Dutch weren’t too offended by the huge f--- up I made with the girl from Cleves.”
Attracted to Kate by her looks and smarts, Henry orders her to marry him. When she reluctantly acquiesces, it seems similar to a business arrangement. Her main task is to educate Henry’s son, Edward. Kate’s also keen to do the same for Mary and Bess, despite their father’s indifference.
Aging and struggling with a chronic leg wound, Henry journeys to France to do battle. Kate persuades him to make her regent, administering the country in his absence. Upon Henry’s return, buoyed by her success (she’s a terrific regent), Kate makes the mistake of suggesting a collaboration. The bid for semi-equality almost proves her undoing. An infuriated Henry has her charged with heresy and treason.
The way in which Kate eludes certain death is the show’s most compelling scene. In her best sequence on Thursday night, Stubel portrayed Kate’s desperate machinations with a startling emotional rawness and physicality — it was like witnessing the life force exposed.
As Henry, Becker displayed great stage presence. Cleverly, he makes the character semi-likable by projecting a bluff humour — he’s like the non-politically correct uncle who both amuses and annoys.
There was little chemistry between Becker and Stubel, arguably the night’s greatest weakness. Yes, the couple’s relationship is fractious. Yet, in the manner of a romantic comedy, we must believe crumbs of genuine love percolate under the surface of their quarrels, as indicated by the script.
Hennig’s aim isn’t to create a historical drama; The Last Wife is something else entirely. That said, some will find it a challenge to suspend disbelief when Kate (after Henry the Beheader refers to the fact she was sexually assaulted in the past) responds: “Yes. And you will never use that information to control me again.”
Such a remark (there are others) reflects a contemporary feminist sensibility that in some ways defines The Last Wife. Of course, no enlightened person can argue with the fact woman are at least equals of men. Yet Hennig’s earnest persistence when it comes to depicting sexual politics, bordering on the dogmatic at times, runs the risk of distancing us from the story. It’s a persistent tap on the shoulder that reminds us we’re watching a play with a message.
Esther Jun directs this long, complex, challenging play with admirable clarity. There was, however, an unevenness in the overall tone of the acting. The unrelentingly perky Bess and terminally petulant Mary veered close to caricature. Becker, as Henry, tended to employ a heightened style of performance noticeably different from the more naturalistic style employed by Stubel as Kate and, to a lesser extent, Sean Baek as Thom.