Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Last Wife

The Last Wife by Kate Hennig.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, directed by Mark Kilmurry.  August 30 – September 29, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
September 7

Assistant Director – Adam Deusien; Set & Costume Designer – Simone Romaniuk; Lighting Designer – Nicholas Higgins

Eddie – Emma Chelsey             Bess – Emma Harvie
Thom – Simon London             Kate – Nikki Shiels
Mary – Bishanyia Vincent        Henry – Ben Wood

Whose ‘Last Wife’ could we possibly be thinking of?  King Henry VIII, you say?  And what was her name?  Oh, yes – Katherine Parr?  Well done!

But here we are in ‘A Royal Household’ where Thom and Kate, and Henry when he bursts in, and then Mary and Bess with little Eddie are all obviously speaking Australian.  It’s not long, of course, before we all cotton on to the fun.

Hold on though, what’s going on in this family is not as much fun as it seems.  Henry already knows about Thom and Kate – basically tapping his nose.  Henry is King of England and Ireland and he’s obviously not going to have anything going on between his political adviser and the woman he’s now planning to marry.  The way he orders people about and won’t brook any criticism or objection – and he’s got a horrible infection on his leg – means we soon accept that we are not watching a modern parallel. 

This is King Henry VIII in about 1542 saying what he would have said translated into modern vernacular so we can understand not only the meanings of his words, but all the underlying feelings and intentions among what remains of the Royal Family. 

He has just beheaded his fifth wife, Catherine Howard;
that was just over a year after anulling his marriage to Anne of Cleves;
that was only three years after Jane Seymour had died;
that was only a year and a half after he beheaded Anne Boleyn;
and that was only three years after he annulled his first marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

If you want a more recent family history of this kind have a look at
As Mark Kilmurry writes “I am thrilled to have been transported to this world with this wonderful cast and marvel at the ways we haven’t changed much in the last 500 plus years.”

At the beginning of the play, all that remains of the Tudor family are:

Henry aged 51, now with no wife and looking at Kate;
Mary: Catherine of Aragon’s and Henry’s daughter (aged 26);
Kate (30) whose mother was Catherine of Aragon’s lady-in-waiting and was brought up with Mary;
Bess: Anne Boleyn’s and Henry’s daughter aged 9; and
Eddie aged 4, but with no mother since Jane Seymour had died a few days after he was born.
Thom was Jane Seymour’s brother, and Kate’s cousin.

Shakespeare wrote history plays using the English of his own time.  If you thought his plots were complicated, then I think you’ll find Kate Hennig may have outdone the master in intra-family detail.

Here is Bess at the end of Hennig’s play, still only about 12, making Mary celebrate their father’s death with a Protestant Bible.  We all know by then that Mary remained a determined Catholic against her father’s separating the English Church from the Pope.  And the rest is history, of course.

Katherine Parr, after the play finishes, did historically provide for Elizabeth’s education to be furthered, until her own death in childbirth five years later, in 1548 – a great preparation for Bess, after Mary had died, to become the Queen in 1558, that Shakespeare knew from his birth in 1564.

The great thing about Kate Hennig’s writing is that you don’t need to know all this history because all you need to know is brought out in the family interactions, conflicts and occasional, if temporary, resolutions over the 6-year period.  The amazingly clever thing is that everything in the play is historically consistent with what we do know, at least as much as anyone can, of the real story.

In other words, the play is remarkable and the performances thoroughly justify Mark Kilmurry’s being ‘transported’.  It was as if the cast were entirely imbued with the atmosphere and family dynamics.  You could not escape Ben Wood’s towering viciousness, even as you knew underneath was insecurity linked to the political necessity to keep the throne in Tudor hands.  Nikki Shiels’ Kate was a characterisation par excellence, a fascinating combination of integrity of intention with acuity of family political perception.  You couldn’t excuse Wood’s Henry even though you could understand where he was coming from; but you were with Shiels’ Kate even when she had to make risky decisions and execute ploys for herself and the children.

And so she was not executed as two previous wives had been – but be prepared to cope with the moment when it could well have happened.  If you want to look for it, you’ll find plenty to learn about domestic violence, and how a woman is murdered each week by a man who thinks he is king.

The audience on Saturday at 4pm was as deeply engaged and appreciative of the acting (and therefore the directing and design) as any audience could be in the more standard witching hour in the evening.  This is exciting theatre, perhaps one of the best I have seen in my more than 50 years of playgoing at The Ensemble.

Definitely not to be missed.