Review: "The Last Wife" at Centaur Theatre Company

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  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

Both gripping and riveting, the Montreal Centaur Theatre’s opening night production of Kate Hennig’s ‘The Last Wife’ soared to great heights thanks to a carefully crafted and nuanced vision by director Eda Holmes, and a cast of solid performers who captured a sense of dignity of these British historical characters even in their moments of passion, abuse, confrontation and betrayal. I had the opportunity to see ‘The Last Wife’ at Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre and was certainly looking forward to re-visiting this story once again especially in a company world renowned as the Centaur.

Ms. Hennig has used poetic licence in the imagination of showing us what life could or might have been like in realizing a possible relationship between the last of Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine Parr, and the supposedly volatile and often petulant king. That didn’t matter to me at all as Ms. Holmes says in her Director’s note this play is a ‘smart and stylish drama, full of sexy characters and life and death stakes – all pillars of a great piece of theatre.’

And this cast delivered these goods in spades. I know that does sound cliched but there was so much to enjoy and why you should attend to see solid professional actors in action before it closes March 3.

For one, Ms. Hennig has set the story in modern day with the use of twenty first century vernacular speech so there is no problem with understanding the language. There is a sense of stately and royal grandeur about the production thanks to Michael Gianfrancesco’s beautiful visual designs in costumes.

What worked tremendously well was keeping the stage setting relatively simple where the audience could use its imagination. That’s a sign of tremendous respect any director has with a thinking audience. There were four dividers which reminded me of the types of dividing doors one enters and exits from the Montreal metro stations. Andrea Lundy’s lighting design accentuated nicely those intense moments especially in the family struggles.

If anything, why I was so looking forward to this production again was seeing other actors bring to life a palpable and intense tale of intrigue, politics, the family and, most importantly, the role of women and their rise to power.  ‘The Last Wife’ is not a play about a dysfunctional family, but rather a look at a man on the verge of feeling as if he has lost his power on account of his age, his looks, and his spirit. It is the women in this story who will become the procurers of power.

Diana Donnelly is a smart, intelligent, bold and daring Katherine Parr who stands her ground with the aging King (Robert Persichini). What originally becomes a marriage contract between Henry and Parr (the ‘affectionate’ name Henry calls his wife), we begin to see a story of conflicting emotions where Ms. Donnelly clearly reveals a woman who ventures back and forth between caring for her husband while still shouldering a simmering passion for Thomas Seymour (a handsome, clean cut and ardently fervent Antoine Yared).

Mikaela Davies and Anne-Marie Saheb offer two strong and convincing performances as half sisters Bess (soon to be Elizabeth 1) and Mary (eventually known as the Queen of Scotland). Splendid work from these two ladies in revealing escalating moments of tension between them which emanated from their father in not recognizing the value and worth of the role of their mothers. There was complete silence from the audience at the dinner table scene as no one wanted to miss any of the conversation. Alessandro Gabrielli is a precocious Eddie (soon to be King Edward), half brother to Elizabeth and Mary. The young Gabrielli’s moments with Mr. Yared as the caring uncle are realistic and believable until the very end of the play where information that is shared places Eddie in a different light.

Mr. Persichini is highly engaging and engrossing as the often petulant and volatile Henry who thankfully does not become a gross caricature of the Hans Holbein portrait that we know. Instead, Mr. Persichini’s layered performance reveals a mighty ruler who may appear adventuresome on the outside, but on the inside is a terribly afraid and hurt man who worries over what will happen to the kingdom after he is gone.

Final Comments: For me, the opening night cast of ‘The Last Wife’ has captured a sense of dignity of the human person amid those heated moments of passion, abuse and confrontation.  Kate is the one who bridges the rift between the ruler and his three children. There’s a line Henry tells Katherine, “There’s no one better suited to be Lord Protector of Edward than Parr”.  I’ll go one step further and say this Centaur production is amply suited to tell this story of a fascinating and enthralling intrigue with the Tudor era.

‘The Last Wife’ runs to March 3, 2019 at The Centaur Theatre, 453 St. Francois-Xavier, Old Montreal. For tickets, call (514) 288-3161 or visit centaurtheatre.com for further information.

Approximate running time: 2 hours and 25 minutes with one intermission

‘The Last Wife’ runs to March 3, 2019 at The Centaur Theatre, 453 St. Francois-Xavier, Old Montreal. For tickets, call (514) 288-3161 or visit centaurtheatre.com for further information.

Michael Gianfrancesco: Set & Costume Designer; Andrea Lundy: Lighting Designer; Anna Atkinson and Alexander MacSween: Composers; Anita Nittolly: Fight Director; Jessica Abdallah: Assistant Director; Melanie St-Jacques: Stage Manager

Photo of Robert Persichini and Diana Donnelly by Andree Lanthier