The Last Wife: Dopey portrait of a smart woman

publicity photo: The Last Wife

(Photo of Courtney Shields and Matthew Bissett by Nancy Caldwell)

The script is so bad. There are some okay elements in this production, but … have I mentioned how bad the script is?

In The Last Wife, playwright Kate Hennig imagines the relationship between Henry VIII and his sixth wife, Catherine Parr, the only spouse who outlived him. Hennig keeps the major documented historical facts in place — more or less — but gives the characters contemporary speech.

Despite being married to a king who’d had two previous wives executed, Catherine accomplished an astonishing amount. She was influential in Henry’s passing of the Third Succession Act, which, years later, allowed his daughter Bess to become Elizabeth I. And, from July to September in 1544, when Henry was off fighting in France, he appointed Catherine regent. She ran the country. Keeping things fresh, Henry issued a warrant for her arrest in 1546, but quickly withdrew it.

Catherine had her wits about her. Unlike the script.

Hennig turns Catherine into a simplistic feminist heroine. I have no doubt the queen’s accomplishments should be celebrated, but why celebrate such an intelligent and successful woman with such simplemindedness?

Hennig’s dialogue and, therefore, her framing of Catherine’s protofeminism, are so rudimentary it’s painful.  When Henry says (maybe about the regency), “It’s not a job for a woman”, Catherine’s counterargument is, “What a stupid thing to say.” That’s it. And she’s talking to a guy who could have her head cut off. When Henry insists, “You can’t just flip the entire system on its head,” Catherine replies, “Why not?” And, when he asserts his status as king, she quips, “A man and a king! Maybe there’s a badge for that.” Come on! Head, axe, smart woman: this could be so much more interesting.

The vacuity of the dialogue relates to the script’s bigger problem: there’s virtually no reality base. Everything feels false, poorly made-up.

The barren text, in which relationships are indicated rather than developed, leaves the actors to fend for themselves. In the opening scene, which takes place before Henry’s proposal, for instance, Catherine is meeting with her would-be lover, Thomas Seymour. The job of the actor playing Thomas is to be seductive, but the script gives him very little to work with and, in this production, amateur performer Mehdi Lamrini fails to fill in the blanks.

Courtney Shields, who’s playing Catherine, sometimes suffers a similar fate. There’s so little development in the plot that, when Henry issues his warrant, we are significantly underprepared for it, which leaves Shields to make up Catherine’s panic virtually out of whole cloth — and that’s too big an ask.

Because of these failings, there’s precious little emotional resonance to The Last Wife.

Given the script’s weaknesses both Shields and Matthew Bissett, who’s playing Henry, do okay with it. But, for me, it was the actors playing Henry’s children who delivered more viscerally satisfying performances. Junita Thiessen is affectingly disaffected as Mary (later to become Bloody Mary), and Lauren Alberico offers an engaging combination of innocence and intelligence as Bess. I also appreciated the honest responsiveness of Rickie Wang’s young Prince Edward.

The main element in Ryan Cormack’s set is an imposing grey wall studded with symmetrically arranged three-dimensional faces that could be death masks. It’s handsome.

So some things work in this production. But Catherine Parr deserves a better script.

THE LAST WIFE Book by Kate Hennig. Directed by Laura McLean. On Saturday, September 23. A United Players production at the Jericho Arts Centre until October 1. Tickets

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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