The Stratford Festival has a gender problem at its core: It's a theatre company in the 21st century primarily dedicated to the works of a playwright who penned scripts for all-male casts a very long time ago.
William Shakespeare wrote a few good women, sure, but for the most part his canon doesn't exactly pass the Bechdel test – and that can lead to frustrated female ensemble members who want acting challenges, and frustrated female audience members who want to see themselves reflected on the stage.
One of artistic director Antoni Cimolino's solutions to this problem has been to counterprogram plays about queens to balance out all those history plays Shakespeare wrote about kings. Last year, there was Michel Marc Bouchard's Christina, the Girl King (about Queen Christina of Sweden) and the year before that it was Friedrich Schiller's Mary Stuart – which saw the titular Queen of Scots go up against Elizabeth I.
The Last Wife, Kate Hennig's new play premiering this season at the festival, could almost be seen as a prequel to Schiller's – giving a glimpse of teenage Elizabeth as she faces off against another Mary, her half-sister, the future Bloody Mary. But the play's main character is Katherine Parr (Maev Beaty), the only wife of Henry VIII to outlive him. "People don't want to introduce me to their daughters any more," Henry (a wily Joseph Ziegler) says, upon their first encounter.
Katherine doesn't really want to marry the King, as she already has a lover, Thom (Gareth Potter), but does so under the condition that she gets to educate not only Henry's son Edward but his daughters Mary (Sara Farb, in goth gear) and Elizabeth (Bahia Watson, sweet and funny), too. As Mary says at one point, with an edge, Katherine is running a "school for queens."
Indeed, that's Hennig's point with the play, perhaps too emphatically made – that Katherine was a believer in women's equality who laid the path for future female leaders in England and elsewhere.
Hennig's play is a bit stop-and-start in structure, but lively – written in contemporary-sounding dialogue and unapologetic about its anachronisms. Katherine talks about "mittens and tuques," while Henry tells his wife to stop pushing her liberal "gender rights" agenda on him.
This Katherine is kind of a feminist superhero despite living under the threat of beheading by her spouse: She successfully convinces Henry to pass the Third Succession Act, restoring his daughters to the line for the throne; takes control of the entire country when Henry is off playing war in France; and even manages to call the shots in bed with her husband and her lover.
Her womanly wonders even extend to the mystical as her homeopathic skills help heal her husband's wounds – and soften Mary's temper.
The problem with Hennig's approach is that it has more political than dramatic power – and in reinventing Katherine as a contemporary of ours and then celebrating her for that, The Last Wife becomes tautological.
Without any obvious flaws, and constantly triumphing, Kate is the least interesting character in the play despite a centred, emotional performance from Beaty. There's little narrative drive to the script, neither comedy nor tragedy – and director Alan Dilworth's clear, casual production does not impart any urgency to it.
What is entertaining are the portrayals of the secondary characters – Farb is seductively sarcastic as Mary; Watson is amusingly jejune as Bess; and Ziegler is a mercurial presence throughout. (Potter's Thom comes across primarily as a plot device, alas – listing this way and that to meet the script's needs.)
If you have a passion for the time of the Tudors – and so many do – Hennig's play is well-acted, thought-provoking and worth a look as we all eagerly await the final tome in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy.
The Last Wife runs at Stratford's Studio Theatre until Oct. 7 (stratfordfestival.ca).