By Rosie Niven
Following the great success of Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Mary Stuart at STC earlier this year, where one of history’s great rivalries was brought to the stage, an interest in contemporary reimaginings of the historical is ripe. Even more in vogue is the retelling of ancient stories from a female perspective, taking the writer’s pen away from the men for a minute and allowing the great women of history to speak for themselves.
It seems perfect timing then, for the Australian premiere of Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife, a work that could be seen as a prequel to the rivalry that drives the plot of Mary Stuart. Leaping away from the old-fashioned language that often comes hand in hand with stories of this kind, Hennig presents us with a contemporary re-imagining of the relationship between King Henry VIII and his last wife, Katherine Parr - the only wife of six to survive him. In a dangerous game of politics and power, Kate spends her marriage to Henry constantly trying to stay one step ahead, for the sake of his daughters, the crown itself, and her own life.
From the minute we meet Kate (Nikki Shiels), it’s clear that her thinking was ahead of its time. When Henry (Ben Wood) decides he will marry her, she makes a counter offer with a list of demands, the most notable that his daughters Mary (Bishanyia Vincent) and Elizabeth (Emma Harvie) receive the same education that his son Edward (Emma Chelsey) receives. Despite Henry’s reluctance, Kate starts a “school for queens” and begins to set them up to take the throne. Shiels is electric is the defiant Kate, with quick wit and a brilliant strength that makes her exciting to watch. Exciting too is Wood’s aggressive and hard-mouthed Henry, whose knack for comedy had the audience in stitches. As a whole, this production was incredibly well-cast. Each performer shone in their respective roles and the chemistry between each of the characters was engaging. Vincent and Chelsey’s performances as Henry’s two ostracised daughters was delightful: Vincent’s sharp tongue the catalyst for many brilliant comedic moments, and Chelsey’s sheltered innocence added some much needed softness amongst so many hardened characters.
The cast worked well with Hennig’s lengthy text, but at times, the text seemed to overpower the performers - many scenes dragged on or lacked a climax, leaving the audience begging for the next tension. Extended conversations tended to lose sight of the direction of the play, but this was quickly amended when the next scene began.
The Last Wife is not a show that allows for a showcase of brilliant tech, but nonetheless, the elements serve the story well. Nick Higgin’s lighting design is simple with a few fun elements that add to the transitions and bring the story into a contemporary setting. The sound design, while often stopping abruptly at the end of transitions, was effective as well.
Simone Romaniuk’s set and costumes smoothly executed the fine line between contemporary and traditional. The set was an impressive use of space, and the small stage felt incredibly grand before the audience.
Although perhaps too long to successfully engage the audience for the duration of the story, The Last Wife is a work that delights and inspires. How refreshing to see the Ensemble Theatre putting women’s voices centre stage and acknowledging the powerful women of history. Katherine’s story is a story that demands to be told: she restored Henry’s daughters to the line for the throne, controlled the country when Henry was at war, and spoke openly about her assault and sexual boundaries. The Last Wife leaves you with an urge to hear more stories of defiant women, of powerful women, of brilliant women - I hope to be seeing more of these stories on the Ensemble stage soon.
The Last Wife is currently showing at The Ensemble Theatre and runs until September 29, 2019.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.