Six weddings. Two beheadings. Two divorces. One maternal death. And then, the one who survived it all.
Catherine Parr is The Last Wife of King Henry VIII, whose compelling and convoluted relationship is the crux of playwright Kate Hennig’s inaugural drama – a 2015 Stratford Festival hit now making its Quebec premiere at the Centaur Theatre in a lustrous, polished production helmed by Artistic and Executive Director Eda Holmes.
The tumults of the 16th century are here transposed to the 21st in a contemporized re-imagining of the extraordinary life and death of the late Queen of England (played by Diana Donnelly). The story is dramatized but rooted in history, chronicling Parr’s negotiated marriage arrangement with Henry VIII (Robert Persichini); her amorous liaisons with Thomas Seymour (Antoine Yared); and her dogged investment in the education of her adoptive children Mary (Anne-Marie Saheb), Elizabeth (Mikaela Davies), and Edward (Alessandro Gabrielli.)
Dynamic tensions from games of strategy and constant oneupmanship in the bedroom, dining room, and war room propel the narrative – one made all the more gripping by the high stakes circumstances. Mistakes are costly, but Catherine proves a formidable female contender of both beauty and brains in this cutthroat boy’s club.
Modern dress and vernacular place the remote realities of 500 years earlier into the present (the piece is unapologetic about its anachronisms) to provide vital commentary on patriarchy, sexual politics, and women’s rights. Hennig’s accessible text, however, is most compelling in humanizing its regal subjects, giving a curious glimpse of family life inside labyrinthine castle walls. Rendered as complex, flawed beings, we come to visualize the iconic historical characters in their intimacies – fearful, petulant, and loving as they are all-powerful.
Montreal native Diana Donnelly captures the astuteness, pragmatism, and resilience of Catherine Parr in the constant threat of execution. She is indeed a match to Robert Persichini’s Henry, who here presents a balancing soft, subservient side to the licentious monarch in his latter years of physical decline. We believe their bond – even if transactional – and the power struggles embedded in their effervescent battle of wits.
Antoine Yared as Seymour is charming in his affairs with Parr – although the character appears to primarily function as a plot device. Alessandro Gabrielli as a young Edward VI is a delightful, mercurial presence throughout, fully holding his own against his seniors. (The two men’s “horseplay” scene is rather discomfiting, but potent in foreshadowing Seymour’s controversial relations with the dowager queen’s step-daughter, Elizabeth I). Mikaela Davies and Anne-Marie Saheb as royal half-sisters Bess and Mary, respectively, are uniformly charismatic – even if polar opposites in temperament. Fiery, funny, and altogether fierce, they play the political pawns who ultimately ascend to sovereignty in Catherine’s restoration of their line of succession to the throne.
With the artistry of director Holmes, the ensemble lift Hennig’s seductive script from page to stage, but it is Michael Gianfrancesco’s palatial set and costumes and Andrea Lundy’s exquisite lighting that fully make for a sensorially engaging production. Music Composers Anna Atkinson and Alexander MacSween are also to be noted for their contributions, which are most prominent during the manifold scene transitions. Swivelling panels and shimmering metallic surfaces evoke the grandiosity of nobility, the duplicity of being, the fragility of mortality, and the turning of tables against existing male power structures – all, perhaps, whilst mirroring our own political and personal struggles. The simple but mesmeric (and purposeful) design elements of this show are standalone spectacles in their own regards.
The contrast of the sophisticated visual aesthetic with the surprisingly colloquial language is a bit jarring for our liking, however, and the feminist agenda can border on the dogmatic at times, but Catherine Parr stands regardless as an inspiring protagonist in her devoted bid for equality. Of a political timeliness, social relevance, and sterling standard, The Last Wife is a fascinating look at the private lives of public beings – perhaps not so unrelatable after all in their fundamental needs and desires. A humorous, witty piece well worth its weight in gold.
Centaur Theatre presents “The Last Wife”
Performances: February 12th to March 3rd
Venue: 453 St. François-Xavier, Montreal, QC, H2Y 2T1
Admission: CAD $30 – $55 (Student/Senior/Under 30 discounts)
Box Office: (514) 288-3161 www.centaurtheatre.com