Review: The Last Wife (Soulpepper)

The Last WifeSoulpepper brings Stratford hit The Last Wife to the Toronto stage

Originally produced by the Stratford FestivalThe Last Wife details the relationship between Henry VIII (Joseph Ziegler) and his sixth and final wife, Katherine Parr (Maev Beaty), during a time of impending war with France and a fraught political landscape. From Kate’s perspective, we witness the tumultuous end of Henry’s reign, and come to know the essential role she played in restoring Mary I and Elizabeth I to the line of succession.

The play, written by Kate Hennig, seeks to flesh out Katherine Parr as a fully realized historical figure and feminist prototype, rather than merely the sixth bullet point on a list of Henry VIII’s many unfortunate wives. As the last of his wives (and therefore only one of two to survive him), she occupies a unique point in history — she is, arguably, the most intimate witness to the twilight of a powerful and divisive ruler, and her efforts to restore ‘Bloody’ Mary I and Elizabeth I to the throne undoubtedly shaped the future of England.

Despite an intriguing treatment of a fascinating point in history, however, I found the play lacking in a few key areas.

First, the play isn’t a history play — not really. It references historical events, but it doesn’t feel anywhere near as detailed as it needs to be to serve as an introduction to this history, and doesn’t do much to contextualize Henry’s political and religious wars. That in and of itself would be okay if that wasn’t the play’s aim — but I would say that the play is more rewarding if you know a bit about this history.

Second, this play is a character study of a character whose motivations are broadly defined and often, unfortunately, bland. Beaty is a commanding presence on stage, but Kate as a character often feels like a feminist mouthpiece rather than a fully fleshed out character. She’s not particularly flawed, and despite occasionally rousing Henry’s temper, she succeeds at virtually everything she attempts. I admire the effort to portray Kate as a crusader for women’s rights, but I felt that the play lacked a strong emotional journey or character arc to carry that goal in a dramatic sense.

Kate enters into her marriage determined to restore Mary and Elizabeth to the throne before she’s even met them. It’s predicated, it seems, on a desire that women be seen as equal to men — and to me, Kate’s crusade never feels more nuanced than that. It also means that she doesn’t really change much over the course of the play. The script feels more concerned with what happened instead of exploring why it happened.

Hennig’s script takes on a modern-day cadence, which is inspired and often leads to some interesting set-ups. An awkward family dinner with Mary, Elizabeth, Henry, Kate and Edward was one of my favourites and a treat from start to finish. Other scenes where Kate and Henry are talking in their bedroom are engagingly domestic and modern-feeling.

However, other scenes can be clunky, with a ping-pongy cadence that feels more like actors throwing lines back and forth rather than actually speaking to one another. Scenes also start and stop abruptly throughout, so there’s a general lack of flow or coherent arc of emotion. Often, I would struggle to tap into the emotion or thought process behind scenes.

So what we have here is a play about an incredibly interesting moment in history that didn’t enrich either my understanding of the historical moment or the people involved. I also don’t feel like I have any insight into the themes of sexism, power or patriarchy that other shows haven’t done before, and perhaps a little more subtly.

But there is something likable about the production despite all this.

The cast, ported directly from the Stratford production, is largely engaging. Beaty commands the stage as a witty, whip-smart Kate. Sara Farb is a wonderfully wry, goth Mary, and Bahia Watson charms as a sunshiny, clever Bess. Joseph Ziegler contrasts the chaos and occasional violence of Henry’s kingship with a candor and self-deprecating wit that’s intermittently frightening and endearing.

The set, too, featuring an upside-down Hampton Court hanging overhead and tall curtains, manages to make a small space feel vast and palatial. Hard, uncomfortable-looking tables serving as both political desk and marriage bed is amusingly apt.

Overall, though, I struggled to tap into this play either emotionally or intellectually. In my opinion, The Last Wife is perfectly competent theatre, but sadly fairly forgettable in both of the aforementioned categories.

Hennig’s follow-up, The Virgin Trial, plays at Stratford this season, and focuses on the young princess Elizabeth.


Photo credit:  Cylla von Tiedemann.