United Players
The Last Wife
by Kate Hennig

When and Where Sept. 8 - Oct. 1, 2023; Wed - Sat evenings at 8pm, Sun matinees at 2pm; Talk backs: Thursday 14th and Sunday 17th September | Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery St.

Director Laura McLean Set Design Ryan Cormack Costume Design Sydney Cavanagh Lighting Design Hina Nishioka Sound Design/Composer Daniel Tessy Stage Manager Maria Denholme

Cast: Kate Courtney Shields Henry Matthew Bissett Mary Junita Thiessen Thom Mehdi Lamrini Bess Lauren Alberico Eddie Rickie Wang

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

The Last Wife is a modern take on the marriage of Catherine Parr and Henry VIII. Modern dress and modern speech complement modern attitudes towards women and power, marriage and family.

The play is less concerned with politics and religion in 16th century England and more about celebrating Catherine’s actual accomplishments. After she married Henry, the king’s daughters, Elizabeth and Mary, formerly living under observation in the country, were allowed to return to Court and she was influential in legalizing their position, restoring their claims to inherit the throne. She personally oversaw the education of the two younger children, Prince Edward and Elizabeth. She was an efficient and accomplished Regent while Henry was abroad.

To later eyes, her chief accomplishment was survival. Hennig’s depiction of her relationship with Henry is beautifully imagined and cleverly drawn. From its very transactional beginnings when Catherine skillfully negotiates for a useful job and bedroom rights the marriage grows, via approaches, rebuffs, accords and compromises, into genuine affection.

Her relationships both with Mary, nearly her own age, and with Elizabeth, at the start of the play about 11, were at first prickly and with Mary remain fragile. Their affections grow as she tries hard to teach the children how to live well, how to live and, essentially, how to compromise. Edward, only 6, is more needy and more loving. Perhaps a little nerdy, he is as sharp as his sisters in understanding their relationship with their father, the king.

Matthew Bissett is excellent as the capricious Henry. Bluff Hal exuding kingly privilege, cultivated royal prince and courtly wooer, blunt politician and chairman of the board, the man who must always win, Bissett makes these parts into a whole man. Even more, he shows him as also vulnerable, both psychologically and physically. The chronic wound in his leg reflects the tragedies of his past actions. Catherine is his third wife of that name and she does not let him forget it; she strips him bare both metaphorically and literally. Even in bed though, Bissett’s Henry is always king. Underneath all these personas is a man who believes country comes first over family, who is ruthless enough to carry out the hard decisions of politics, and who is ultimately cruel. Bissett is quite terrifying.

While the text sometimes leads her to be the caring soccer mom, which she does very well, Courtney Shields is even better as the tiger wife. In an intelligent, versatile performance she is an equal for Bissett’s Henry. She also is vulnerable despite her successes. Sometimes misunderstanding Henry, her mistakes are unmooring; when Henry is terrifying her terror is unmistakable. It is a major achievement that the audience is never unaware of Catherine’s secret passion for Thom Seymour (Mehdi Lamrini) underlying everything she does.

The historical Catherine did indeed fall for a dashing young man from an aspiring family. After her marriage to the king, he was sent abroad on diplomatic missions but eventually they were married. Lamrini swings into his role, playing with the Prince, flirting with Elizabeth as she grows up, embracing Catherine in dangerous places. He manages always to suggest a man with an eye to the main chance.

Junita Thiessen presents Mary in an engaging portrait of an ill-treated, cynical young woman, just barely open to good advice and kindness. Lauren Alberico is a bright and lively Bess and Rickie Wang plays Eddie with princely aplomb.

A pair of thrones, a work table and a bed comprise the spare set by Ryan Cormack. Backdrop projections and good lighting (Hina Nishioka) annotate change of scene. Costumes by Sydney Cavanagh are unobtrusively modern as is the work of Daniel Tessy, sound designer and composer.

2023 Elizabeth Paterson