Step aside, Wonder Woman. The Stratford Festival has the real feminist summer franchise on its hands with Kate Hennig's edgy takes on Tudor history.
A couple of summers ago, the Southern Ontario repertory theatre premiered The Last Wife – a first-time script by actor-turned-playwright Hennig that concerned Henry VIII's final wife, Catherine Parr, and her tutelage of the future Mary I and Elizabeth I in her "school for Queens." It was a genuine hit – and quickly spawned productions across Canada and in Chicago.
Now comes the sequel – and it's even better: The Virgin Trial. If the first play sold itself largely on the popularity of its subject matter, the second in a planned cycle of dramas demonstrates Hennig really coming into her own as a writer for the stage.
Directed with a thriller-like urgency by Alan Dilworth, The Virgin Trial focuses on Bess (Bahia Watson) – aka the future "virgin queen" – when she was 15 years old, and when her younger half-brother Edward sat on England's throne and her older half-sister Mary (Sara Farb) sat waiting in the wings.
As the play begins, Bess finds herself under investigation for treason after her step-father – and maybe lover – Thom Seymour (Brad Hodder) breaks into the King's apartments and shoots one of his spaniels.
Forty-year-old Thom's execution for treason is fact, and his flirtations with the teenage girl who was essentially his step-daughter has fuelled much salacious speculation over the centuries.
Hennig's dramatic concern is how much young Bess knew of, or perhaps even orchestrated, Thom's plans to assassinate her brother from another mother – while her thematic concern is how much we underestimate teenage girls then and now as they skillfully navigate worlds filled with predatory men.
It's, in that sense, a fine companion piece to Scott Wentworth's anti-romantic production of Romeo and Juliet on Stratford's main stage – where a certain willful 13-year-old girl refuses to submit to the violent patriarchy of Verona.
The Lord Protector Ted (Nigel Bennett), who also happens to be Thom's brother and is searching for a way to save him, is the one who brings Bess in for questioning here – playing, at first at least, the good cop role to an iron lady eager to clap anyone in irons named Eleanor (a chilling Yanna McIntosh, who would make an amazing villain in any superhero movie).
Whereas The Last Wife suffered a little by having a protagonist who was too much of a revisionist-history heroine, The Virgin Trial has a great, complex central character in Bess – a real break-out role for the underrated and totally original actress Watson. She has a girlish voice, but brings tremendous nuance to it – and, like the inquisitors, you may find yourself wondering whether her Bess is innocent or just skilled at playing innocent. (Though Hennig's play is, in a way, an interrogation of adjectives like "innocent" and "virginal," which become loaded when applied to girls.)
In Dilworth's production, the scenes snap from one to the other – and we get to watch Watson's wily queen-to-be quickly shift tactics depending on who she has to perform her act for and wonder what's really at her centre.
Set designer Yannik Larivée has hung a giant semi-transparent shower curtain across the back of the Studio Theatre's stage, through which we glimpse some scenes in a chamber where Elizabeth's associates Ashley (Laura Condlln) and Parry (André Morin) get interrogated in ways that those in the line of succession do not. Waterboarding at a remove is that much more horrific to watch.
Yes, as with the first play, anachronism is employed both in the costume and stage design and in the dialogue to help bridge the gap between terror in Tudor times and our own. If Hennig's structure stumbles a little in the second half, and a few ironies are underlined too heavily, these are minor quibbles in the swiftly moving show.
With The Virgin Trial and Wilde Tales, Hennig's adaptation of four Oscar Wilde stories at Shaw Festival, we're watching her pull off an impressive switch from being one of Canada's most notable actors to being one of our most noteworthy playwrights.
The Virgin Trial (stratfordfestival.ca) continues to September 30.