Review: 'The Last Wife' at the Soulpepper Theatre

Review: 'The Last Wife' at the Soulpepper Theatre

Joseph Szekeres

OnStage Toronto Critic

AN ENGAGING LOOK AT BRITISH TUDOR HISTORY THROUGH THE LAST WIFE

I understand completely why Kate Hennig’s THE LAST WIFE, now in performance in Toronto’s Distillery District, was held over at the Stratford Festival last summer.  This script is a clever, witty, contemporary and imaginary look at the story of Henry VIII and his last wife, Katherine Parr, who had outlived him.  Thankfully, the original Stratford company reprises their roles for this Soulpepper run, and what a terrific cast it is.

We have entered the tumultuous, patriarchal world of Tudor England, which is effectively shown in the Hampton Court model suspended upside down centre stage.  In similar fashion to the opening of PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, this model is slowly raised before our eyes, which heightens dramatic and political tension especially in knowing that war will probably break out soon.  And yet, although we are aware of Henry’s absolute power in England, playwright Hennig focuses more on Parr’s monumental and instrumental influence.  

Director Alan Dilworth writes in his Program Notes that “Katherine’s story is a complex one of wife, mother, lover, writer, religious reformer, Queen, teacher and activist”, and Maev Beaty delivers an extraordinarily gripping performance of character depth where she assumes each of these roles with confidence and ease. Parr (as Henry calls her) is compassionate especially in a tender moment where she cleanses her husband’s gaping wounds from a sundry of health concerns.  Yet in another moment, desperately aware of her husband’s volatile temperament, Kate flees to the arms of her raffish and dashing lover, Thom (a passionately, ardent performance by a strapping Gareth Potter).

Soulpepper founding member Joseph Ziegler plays Henry VIII who, as Director Dilworth writes, “is the symbol of absolute power and patriarchal excess for the English speaking world.” Ziegler’s Henry is venerable, calculating and violent.  Sadly, even in the early moments of the play, Henry is astutely aware that he is not the man he once was especially when he tells Kate, “People don’t want to introduce me to their daughters anymore.”  A funny, yet pitiful comment on the man who had a tremendous influence on the face of political and religious change in England.

Sara Farb, Bahia Watson and Jonah Q. Gribble respectively play Mary, Bess (later Elizabeth I) and Edward, children from three different mothers who all starve and struggle for some shred of filial affection from a father who believes that, between a country and family, the former comes first.  A personal dramatic highlight of the performance for me was the moment where both Mary and Bess sign the Act of the Oath of Succession.  Farb and Watson command the stage with their presence in their reactions ranging from revulsion and disgust to reservation and uncertainty.  Gribble is quite impressive and convincing in the role of young Edward who reaches out for guidance and acceptance particularly in those parent-child moments with Beaty and Ziegler.  

THE LAST WIFE runs to February 11, 2017 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District, 50 Tank House Lane.  Contact the Box Office at (416) 866-8666 for tickets.  Visit soulpepper.ca for more information. Photo: Maev Beaty and Joseph Ziegler, photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

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