Review by Emily Smith
While waiting for the opening night of Ladies Who Wait to begin at Subiaco Arts Centre my friend and I reminisced on learning about the Tudor period for a disproportionately long time at our primary schools in the south of England. We compared fond memories of school trips to old Tudor castles and reassured ourselves we could still run through all the Henry VII’s wives and their children and, most importantly, their gory endings, with a little help from that handy rhyme:
divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.
Yvette Wall's new play, based on a 10 minute piece from Short + Sweet 2022, focuses on the first two queens, Catherine of Aragon (divorced) the devout Spanish Catholic whose split with Henry created the Church of England, and Anne Boleyn (beheaded) for whom he split with Catherine, and featuring an appearance from Jane Seymour (died) all in a tizzy about her new engagement. The second act jumps twenty years forward to the daughters of the two queens, half-sisters Mary and Elizabeth who famously fought for the crown and whose complicated relationship was examined in Kate Mulvany’s adaption of Mary Stuart for Perth Festival 2022. That plus the hit show about Henry’s wives, Six: The Musical, that toured Australia last year (as I write this I have “I’m that Boleyn girl and I’m up next, see I broke England from the church, yeah I’m that sexy” going round in my head) shows that Tudor Queens are really having their moment in the limelight, and Ladies Who Wait has a lot to live up to.
Yvette’s innovation is the characters of Alice and Agnes (Colleen Bradford and Fiona Forster), ladies in waiting to the about-to-be-beheaded Queen and later to her step-daughter. They are thick as two short planks and full of bawdy jokes that kept us laughing throughout. Colleen’s dim-witted Alice is endearing in her obliviousness to anything serious, and Fiona’s Agnes can be relied upon for a lewd comment and brutal honesty, even when talking to royalty. The two embraced their roles wholeheartedly, creating two loveable idiots who were a hoot to watch.
Emily Howe as Anne Boleyn had more poise and sophistication than I thought possible in the presence of such irreverent ladies-in-waiting, and gave the soon-to-be-beheaded queen dignity and humour in her final hours.
The ghost of Catherine of Aragon and her (alive) daughter Mary were both played imperiously by Jennifer McGrath, whose cackling laugh got a full workout and put goosebumps up my arms. Both mother and daughter had matching superiority complexes and a vitriolic dislike of Anne Boleyn, but Mary had a vulnerability stemming from her phantom pregnancy that tugged at the heartstrings. The bawdy script left just enough space for her pain to elicit genuine sympathy before swooping in with another joke.
Maree Cole was a tour-de-force portraying wildly different queens Jane Seymour and Elizabeth I. Her foppishly ignorant Jane bustled in displaying an extravagant amount of gorgeous Tudor layers and a different calibre of dim-wittedness than that of Alice and Agnes which had me in stitches. Returning as Elizabeth I in the second act Maree rocked a set of breeches and a riding cape, asserting her disdain for femininity and using her sarcastic wit like a professional swordsman on the ladies-in-waiting and her hysterical half-sister.
Virginia Wall Price and David Wall’s set design is perfectly evocative of a room in the Tower of London with its brick wall backdrop including portraits and flickering torches, and all the set pieces like goblets of wine were a great touch to really sell the time period.
Yvette Wall’s play shows that history doesn’t have to be depressing even when the subjects are gory and the power struggles are all too familiar. Director Gino Cataldo said in the program that “finding a reason to laugh daily can be a lifesaver in these challenging times,” and if that’s the case then Ladies Who Wait is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Ladies Who Wait by Off the Wall Productions is showing at Subiaco Arts Centre until the 26th August.