Review: ‘Mother’s Daughter’ at Stratford Festival

  • Joe Szekeres, Chief Toronto Critic

The (possible?) conclusion of Kate Hennig’s final installment of her Queenmaker series was one to which I was most looking forward to seeing. I had seen the first ‘The Last Wife’ at Soulpepper and the second ‘The Virgin Trial’ at Soulpepper and Montreal’s Centaur Theatre. 

It was certainly well worth the wait for this production. If possible, try to read the Tudor timeline in the programme before the production begins.  I also found Director Alan Dilworth and playwright Hennig’s program commentaries extremely helpful.

Thirty-eight-year-old princess Mary (Shannon Taylor) daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife Katherine (called Catalina here and played by Irene Poole) wrests the throne from Edward VI’s deemed heir. Catalina appears periodically as a ghost from her daughter’s memory which shakes the princess to the core as questions are asked about the motives of Bess and Mary’s cousin, Jane (Andrea Rankin) and half sister Bess (later Queen Elizabeth I and played by Jessica B. Hill) whom Mary both adores.

The Studio Theatre lends itself to the immediate connection we make to the characters courtesy of Lorenzo Savoini’s precise set and elegant costume designs.  An elegant table and chair are found centre stage with a staircase to an upper playing level. Kimberley Purtell’s lighting design is starkly effective especially in the flickering of the LED lights in those moments when the ghostly Catalina appears to Mary.

Ms. Hennig’s taut script of quick-witted dialogue and rapid-fire conversations is finely accentuated by Alan Dilworth’s smart direction and aided by terrific performances, especially those of Irene Poole, Shannon Taylor and Jessica B. Hill. These three ladies are riveting, but it is Mary’s perspective which is the focus for the playwright: “There’s something about Mary…[she] is not a martyr…Mary is not a hero…Mary has been written into history as the bad guy…Now, I’m not saying she’s a good guy. Mary’s just human. Or at least in my plays I am contemplating her humanity.” And we do see those moments in the play where Ms. Taylor suffering from cramps makes us feel some empathy for her, or for when her forgiving nature and focus on the family unit are heightened.

Each time, Ms. Taylor speaks with Ms. Poole, I had goosebumps as I bought the fact immediately Mary was carrying on an icy conversation with her dead mother. Those moments in which Catalina advises her daughter to “kill the pretenders” are ominous. Along with Ms. Hill, both actors deliver a look at complexly strong women figureheads who are aware how the machinations of war can change quickly and how they must adapt accordingly.

The token male in the production of Mary’s advisor, Simon (Gordon Patrick White) reprieves us a bit from the intensity of the moment to some laughter most notably when he walks in on Mary who is changing her clothes. If anything, Mr. White’s presence as Simon is a reminder of the shifts in seeing how Mary and Elizabeth at times must behave like men when it comes to the defense of the kingdom. When the kingdom then splits between Roman Catholicism and English Protestantism aides Susan (Maria Vacratsis) and Bassett (Beryl Bain) become of tremendous importance to the inklings of the royal court and what is occurring in England.

I have always been fascinated with the story of the Tudor reign in England.  Ms. Hennig in all three of her plays uses common vernacular for a twenty first century audience which also helps in securing interest in the story. Be that as it may, make sure you still pay attention to the events of the play as it is also possible to get lost in the quickening action of the plot and of the events in the conclusion.

‘Mother’s Daughter’ runs in repertory to October 13 at the Studio Theatre, 34 George Street, Stratford ON.  For tickets, visit or telephone 1- 800-567-1600.

The production runs approximately 2 hours and 10 minutes with one interval.

Director: Alan Dilworth; Designer: Lorenzo Savoini; Lighting Designer: Kimberly Purtell; Sound Designer: Debashis Sinha; Producer: David Auster;

Production photo of Irene Poole, Shannon Taylor and Jessica B. Hill by David Hou.