Review: The Virgin Trial’ at Soulpepper

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

I had the opportunity to see Kate Hennig’s extraordinary The Last Wife in 2017 at Soulpepper and was marvellously drawn back into the Tudor world and its events of the court of Henry VIII, Katherine Parr, his surviving wife and Henry’s three children from various wives – Mary, Bess (later Queen Elizabeth I) and Edward. I’ve always held a fascination with the world of the Tudors and found that Ms. Hennig’s text completely captivated my attention. 

For one, I liked the fact the story is told in ‘modern English’ as it was easy to follow the events of the plot since I remember a great deal of them from studies during my undergraduate years and in teaching English language and literature to secondary school students.  When I had read that Ms. Henning was completing a trilogy of the story, I was looking forward to continuing the journey with the characters. The fact the second part would be directed by Alan Dilworth with Ms. Watson returning was a bonus.

Well, I ventured on the opening night journey of ‘The Virgin Trial’ at Soulpepper where we meet fifteen year old inexperienced Bess (razor sharp work once again by Bahia Watson) who must rely on her wits as she faces a grilling and, often times, nasty interrogation from the unseen Edward’s Lord Protector Ted (Nigel Bennett) and his very scary associate, Eleanor (an unsparing and unflinching performance by Yanna McIntosh). Political intrigue then consumes the story.

The young Bess is questioned over the Lord High Admiral Thomas Seymour, who is called Thom (played with a fiery and burning intensity by Brad Hodder), and his suspected treason in wanting to harm the young King Edward VI. Throughout this questioning, we are taken back to moments in time where there is torture, violence, sexuality and strong language intermingled in the events.

Was the journey worth it again to revisit the Tudor world?

For the most part, yes, but I found a few moments of the action in the first act plodded along where I began to lose focus for the exponentially high exposition of historical events. I had some challenges in trying to connect how Ashley (Laura Condlln) and Parry (Andre Morin) were united with Bess. In a play such as this (unless one has studied British history or is its aficionado) it is easy to get lost if one isn’t paying attention.

It was in the second act where it came clear to me the connection of Ashley, Bess’s governess and Parry, her accountant. Although Ms. Condlln and Mr. Morin are solid performers, I found the text didn’t flesh out further the relationship of the future Queen of England to these two characters.

What makes this play a solid production and worth a visit is Ms. Watson especially in her moments with Mr. Hodder and Helen Knight (who plays half sister, Mary, Queen of Scots with a brooding magnitude of inner strength). Through those moments of adolescent petulance in seeing how the patriarchal powers-to-be wanted to diminish and lessen her rule as future queen, I quite admired how Ms. Watson (as Bess) went head to head with those who threatened her very being and rightful rule in the line of succession to the throne. This future queen would not let male patriarchy destroy her ‘rogue spirit, free thinking and fearless ideals’ (as Ms. Watson writes in her Artist’s Program Notes).

For me, I found Ms. Watson’s final spot lit pose in Act 2 as the future Queen of England regal, confident and ferocious.  A striking image indeed.

I read in this upcoming Stratford’s spring/summer/fall brochure the third of the trilogy will be staged. Of course, I want to see the completion of the story and wonder if we will see these traits in Elizabeth or will we follow Mary’s story. Must wait until then.

‘The Virgin Trial’ continues to February 3 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in the Michael Young Theatre, 50 Tank House Lane, Toronto’s Historic Distillery District. For further information or to purchase tickets online visit www.soulpepper.ca or call 1-416-866-8666.

Running time: approximately 2 hours with one 20-minute intermission.

Performers: Nigel Bennett, Laura Condlln, Brad Hodder, Helen Knight, Yanna McIntosh, Andre Morin, Bahia Watson

Director: Alan Dilworth; Set & Costume Designer: Yannik Larivee; Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell; Sound Designer: Alexander McSween; Stage Manager: Meghan Callan;

Photo of Bahia Watson and Brad Hodder from the 2017 production of ‘The Virgin Trial’ by Cylla von Tiedemann.