Left – Nikki Sheils and Simon London. Cover – Ben-Wood. Photos – Phil Erbacher
Every so often you see a play that makes you rethink some of your preferences about theatre. Not because you were necessarily misguided, but due to having so rarely seen examples of sufficient quality to win you over with a theatrical trend that typically irks you.
My personal prejudice in this regard is a somewhat weary disapproval of what I would term “unnecessary modernisation” in the production of classics and period pieces, not only aesthetically but dramaturgically. Rather sweatily bespeaking little faith in the engagement of the audience, this kind of pandering to modernity generally seems implemented in the pursuit of the great white whale of so-called “relevance”. Obviously the ship has long since sailed on modern-dress productions of Shakespeare, for example, but if it makes his work more accessible to younger audiences while retaining the text, it seems a fair compromise. Comparatively, employing modern language in period dramas can be more troublesome, yet when not egregiously peppered with painfully current (and thus soon to be very dated) neologisms, it can sometimes be effective. And of course there is always the modernised adaptation or new translation from outside of the English theatrical canon, where one of the classics is presented both in modern idiom and modern dress, transposing the plot and characters of a Chekov or Sophocles drama into bedrooms or battlefields of the present day.
Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife is perhaps closest to the latter approach, but rather than adapting a preexisting theatrical text to a modern day setting, it is an original “history play” which, much like those of Shakespeare, dramatises an important chapter in the life of an English monarch, yet does so through a contemporary lens. The difference in approach which marks it out as uncommon, possibly unique at least to my experience, is that it renders these royals from the better part of five hundred years ago through both modern speech and costuming, yet does not actually transplant the events to the present day.
While avoiding mention of specific dates, the play fairly unambiguously still seems set in its original historical context, with references to swords, canon, witchcraft and the Reformation that would all be highly anachronistic if the modern presentation were taken literally. There are a few moments where these issues blur a little awkwardly, such as the use of a Walkman prop in one scene, or some dialogue employing a driving metaphor with apparent references to automobiles, yet by and large the effect is seamless.
What makes it all work so well is not that this particular conceit of surface-modernisation is so especially astonishing, but rather that it is just so damn well executed. To boil it down to its essentials, you could say that this is a play which presents the triumphs and tribulations of Catherine Parr as the sixth and final wife of Henry VIII, rendered to look and sound like a realistic modern kitchen sink drama, while still being literally about matters of state rather than reducing them to euphemistic vagaries or reaching for mundane modern equivalences. And unless you have a particularly keen interest in the history of the British monarchy, that may not necessarily sound like the most exciting pitch for a play, potentially turning off sticklers for historic accuracy and those disinterested in the topic alike.
Where Hennig succeeds so powerfully is in her extremely incisive approach to presenting these grand historical figures as relatable human beings, beautifully realised through her disarmingly raw, witty, and (yes I’m going to say it) accessible dialogue. Henry VIII may still be every inch a king, yet he sounds like someone you might meet in Bunnings whose plain, almost ocker accent belies his considerable education and authority. Catherine Parr might look and sound like she belongs at a North Shore dinner party, yet she is unquestionably a Queen with a dangerously progressive agenda.
This expert balancing act between the presentation of statecraft and family disputes convincingly conveys the key point that, for these characters, such matters are often one and the same. Achieving this with such deftness is Hennig’s particular brilliance. In some moments you can be lulled into a sense of the familiar and almost suburban, viewing Henry as a charming husband with abusive tendencies, only to be reminded that in this context the prospect of domestic violence manifests itself in the form of warrants for treason, heresy, and the threat of execution by state decree. Catherine may literally be a stepmother trying to build bridges between a father and his estranged daughters, but she is also training two future queens of England for the throne, and influencing her husband to amend royal decrees to reinstate their rights to succession.
One cannot praise Hennig enough for the fact that it all plays so smoothly, almost effortlessly framing these larger-than-life stakes in the relatable emotional terms of a family drama. Although, of course, on a certain level a family drama is exactly what this story is, but that too is part of her artistry, in taking this canny approach to such rich historical material.
For all my fulsome praise of Hennig’s script, however, this production would certainly not have the degree of impact that it has without the superb performances of its excellent cast, wonderfully marshalled by Ensemble’s artistic director Mark Kilmurry. Everyone in this tight group does a very fine job indeed, breathing humanising warmth and frailty alike into such epochal figures. Simon London is sympathetic as the rather put-upon Thomas Seymour, and Emma Harvie conveys a compelling mix of malnourished self-worth and a burgeoning intellect as the young future Elizabeth I. The high-spirited young boy destined to only briefly reign as Edward VI is appealingly brought to life by Emma Chelsey, who takes on the ebullient child role with conviction.
Bishanyia Vincent, who made such a big impression last year as another fierce woman subject to the whims of an often infantile king, in the title role of New Theatre’s Nell Gwynn, cannot help but pull focus in virtually every scene she steals here as the future Bloody Mary. Played with withering sarcasm as the kind of “Daria” of this modern take on the Tudors, she excels as the acerbic older daughter who is fed up with everyone else’s shit and is not shy about letting them know so. Although hardly what could be called “comic relief”, Vincent is blessed with the lion’s share of the cutting one-liners in the play, yet is just as potent in her dramatic moments and comedy alike. As Mary she exudes a penumbra of disapproval over proceedings even when silent, her mere presence like a black hole of hilarious negativity at one end of the family dining table.
Many notable actors have portrayed the towering personage of Henry VIII, yet Ben Wood unquestionably shines in his indelible take on the King, which stands as possibly the highlight of this production. Although undoubtedly aided in making the role his own by the naturalistic effect of the playscript’s modernising lens, Wood infuses the potent historical figure with so many layers of emotional and intellectual nuance and credibility that he actually manages to make this appalling tyrant come across as frequently appealing and at times even shockingly sympathetic.
Of all the cast Wood has perhaps the greatest challenge, not only in playing the most well-known (and thus laden with audience preconceptions) historical character in their fully-formed persona, but also because the role of a monarch wielding absolute power has the least “relatable” emotional corollary from a modern domestic viewpoint. Even if one still ascribed to the sexist motto that each man is a king in his own house, having literal control of life and death over your family is a power dynamic most of us hopefully never have to deal with.
Yet somehow Wood achieves this handsomely, making Henry’s explosive accusations of treason, renunciations of succession, or exhortations to invade France roll off the tongue as matter-of-factly as if he were talking about cutting someone out of his will before engaging the family plumbing company in an aggressive business expansion. This brute’s unexpected compassion and appreciation of his latest wife’s intelligence or respect for her sexual boundaries surprise us, yet can turn on a dime, with violent mood swings careening off into very ugly threats of death and disownment whenever his ego is the least bit challenged.
Indeed, one of the triumphs of Wood’s ability to convey Hennig’s conception of the character is that, for all his extremes, Henry never comes across here as completely psychotic nor paranoid, but rather a complicated creature of unfettered ego. This is a man who creates his own demons by endlessly satisfying every whim that he possesses the privilege to so readily fulfill, and then lashing out when he doesn’t like the consequences. Through a modern lens of toxic masculinity, Henry’s irrational behaviour seems all too familiar to us today, not as an abstracted King but simply as a powerful man, so used to being able to buy or bully his way through life, that even the least crack in the outward appearance of his quite real power sends him into a tailspin of insecurity. It is a festering fragility of the soul that manifests in outwardly projected hostility against any who might detect this “weakness”.
Nikki Shiels does a lot of heavy lifting as the titular last wife of Henry VIII and, as per the thesis of this play, the closest to a legitimate equal and partner as this tempestuous king could ever (almost) allow himself to acknowledge. Her turn as Catherine, or Kate, is the dramatic lynchpin of the show, being the central figure to the plot, and the axis upon which all the other characters have their primary relationships in the play. An educated and remarkably capable woman, especially given her precarious circumstances, Kate walks a tightrope between trying to please her notoriously dangerous husband while attempting to give him what he needs, if not necessarily what he wants. In the process she struggles to keep her dignity intact or, failing that, her neck.
Kate must, to mix our metaphors, navigate the minefield of Henry’s irrationally mixed messages and attempt to steer him towards goals both desirable for the kingdom and, in her own view, morally right, such as restoring his disowned daughters to the line of succession. The protofeminism at play in this action, and her subsequent attempts to educate these much-maligned offspring of Henry’s disposed-of former wives is evident. Shiels does a masterful job of inflecting this fiercely intelligent and independent, yet often terrified and aggrieved woman with a depth of credibility that is essential for the role to work as effectively here as it most certainly does.
Between an outstanding script and a terrific cast doing powerful work, The Last Wife is one of the best shows I have seen this year, creating an outstanding work of theatre from one of the most compelling family dramas of western history.
Ensemble Theatre presents
The Last Wife
by Kate Hennig
Director Mark Kilmurry
Venue: Ensemble Theatre | 78 McDougall St, Kirribilli, NSW
Dates: 30 Aug – 29 Sep 2019
Tickets: $43 – $80
Bookings: 02 8918 3400 | www.ensemble.com.au