Ensemble Theatre, September 4


Most plays with historical settings are now relocated to the present, by way of offering obeisance to the false god of relevance. Canadian playwright Kate Hennig didn’t wait for a director to do the inevitable, but took matters into her own hands. Her drama, centred on Katherine Parr, and with Henry VIII, Princess Mary, Princess Elizabeth, Prince Edward and Thomas Seymour (Kate’s lover) as the other characters, is reduced in scale to a domestic family drama. Hennig specifies no period costumes, and eliminates the 16th century from her language, in favour of a North American vernacular replete with “daddy-oh” and “toodle-oo”.

So rather than the awkward anachronisms that directors create by having actors saying “prithee” while wearing shorts and thongs, Hennig has her setting, language and characterisations singing from the same hymnal – albeit discordantly, on occasion. Yes, Henry still threatens to execute Kate, but that takes on the rank odour of domestic violence, and as for invading France, well, every man needs a hobby, doesn’t he?

Ben Wood. Photos: Phil Erbacher.

Hennig’s entirely credible versions of these characters could seem reengineered through a feminist lens, but in fact Parr provided ample raw material with which to grind the glass by being a hyper-intelligent polymath. Alas Hennig’s writing suffers from self-indulgences and lapses of judgement, with some of the aforementioned vernacularisms shoehorned in to amuse with their incongruity. She has Henry punning on “Pah” to Parr, and making a lame Beatle-reference joke of “dear prudence” in response to mention of that attribute. Similarly when Thom tells Kate he’s a sea-captain, she responds with “Yo ho ho”, and when a menacing Henry tells her he’s a bear, she replies with a self-conscious “You’re my anchor”. How such stuff was not decapitated in about the second draft is a mystery.

Nonetheless her writing is suffused with little glories, too, as when Henry fails to perform in bed. Kate says, “We’ll try again when you’re – “, and Henry interrupts with a bitter “Younger?”.

Ben Wood and Nikki Shiels. Photos: Phil Erbacher.

The play’s uneasy truce between naturalism and stiltedness is magnified in the performances and design elements, with director Mark Kilmurry and his actors only intermittently hitting upon the clear, ringing note of truth. Bishanyia Vincent’s Mary – as sour as a lemon and as venomous as an asp – comes closest. Emma Harvie’s teenaged Bess also works. She is smart, curious, effervescent and, having lost her mother to the headsman, keen to love and be loved. In fact her wide-eyed infatuation with life sets up the embittered virgin of later history.

Nikki Shiels creates an appropriately multi-faceted Kate: an alluring intellectual who learns to love Henry via caring for him, but who pushes her assertiveness beyond the brink of the ruthlessly patriarchal system’s tolerance. Ben Woods can’t quite nail the tricky abruptness of Henry’s abrupt swings between viciousness and winning charisma, Simon London struggles to transmute Thom into something more than a cypher, and Emma Chelsey works too hard at the young Prince Edward.

But it’s not individual performances that undermine the play so much as the credibility and depth of the relationships. You don’t believe in this love Kate feels for either Henry or Thom, although a genuinely tender moment when she dresses Henry’s ulcerated leg suggests what might have been. The most complex, understated side of the play is Henry’s seemingly tacit tolerance of the love between Kate and Thom – given that the statistical chances of survival if you crossed him were modest. Hennig could well have made more of this aspect.

Until September 29.