Stage Door Review

The Virgin Trial

Thursday, January 24, 2019

✭✭✩✩✩

by Kate Hennig, directed by Alan Dilworth

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Young Centre, Toronto

January 24-February 3, 2019

“Non Virgo Intacta”

The Stratford Festival has just given the world premiere of the second part of Kate Hennig’s trilogy about Tudor queens that began with The Last Wife in 2015. That play concerned the last of Henry VIII’s six wives, Catherine Parr (1512-48).  The new play focusses on Parr’s illustrious step-daughter Elizabeth Tudor, who at the age of 14 is being questioned about her involvement with Thomas Seymour, brother of Henry’s third wife Jane Seymour. Though the play makes use of historical subject matter, Hennig embeds the action irremovably in the 21st century. This curious technique results in a play that functions neither as an historical drama nor as a contemporary thriller.

The action is set in an anonymous modern interrogation room with only a metal table and two chairs. A stern woman named Eleanor (Yanna McIntosh) is questioning the young Elizabeth (Bahia Watson), third in line to the British throne, in a brusque, dismissive manner that in no way pays heed to her rank. In Eleanor’s mind, Bess is merely a foolish, perhaps even treasonous young girl. The defiant Bess herself prefers to be questioned by a man she calls Ted (Nigel Bennett), whose historical counterpart is Edward Seymour, Lord Protector of the Realm. He effectively rules England since the present king, Henry VIII’s only son, Edward VI, is only 9 years old.

The initial reason for Eleanor and Ted’s questioning is that they wish to find out how much Bess knows about the dubious actions of Thom (Brad Hodder), counterpart of Edward’s younger brother Thomas Seymour, Lord High Admiral. In history, Thomas Seymour, 1st Baron Seymour of Sudeley (c.1508-49) had had a relationship with Catherine Parr when her second husband was ill. But when Henry VIII proposed to her she felt it her duty to accept his proposal instead of Thomas’s. Resenting the influence of his brother Edward over the young King Edward VI, Thomas sought to gain influence in other ways.  

He proposed to both Elizabeth and to her sister Mary, both of whom were advised to reject him. Then he proposed to his old flame, the newly widowed Catherine Parr, who married him in 1547. Once married he moved in with Parr and her step-daughter Elizabeth.  There Catherine was at first amused at Thomas’s flirting with Elizabeth, but Elizabeth’s governess Kat Ashley was not. When Catherine became pregnant, Thomas was sent away to live elsewhere.  

In 1549 Thomas was caught trying to enter the young King’s rooms at Hampton Court Palace and shot a dog that was barking. The fact of his entering the King’s bedroom at night with a loaded gun caused him to be arrested for treason and executed for the offence later that year. His arrest also put Elizabeth under suspicion to determine the nature of her relationship with him and whether she was complicit in his actions. She was questioned and her servants arrested.  

Hennig tells her version of events as flashbacks that emerge from the relentless verbal barrage from Eleanor and Ted. When not interrogating Bess, Ted is questioning Thom in prison and Eleanor is torturing Ashley (Laura Condlln) and Parry (André Morin), the latter likely a gender-switched counterpart to Blanche Parry, who became Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber after Kat Ashley’s death.  

Theatre-goers will find it fairly outrageous that Eleanor personally waterboards Parry to get him to confess and, worse, that she tortures Ashley through electroshocks in exactly the same position as the infamous photo of the prisoner Ali Shallal al-Qaisi at Abu Ghraib. We understand that Hennig is relocating Tudor history in the contemporary period, but why would English examiners in England use the same methods of torture that American used on Iraqis during the second Iraq War? It is offensive that Hennig and her director Alan Dilworth would appropriate such potent images simply for their shock value in order to boost the impact of Hennig’s fiction.

The first act of Hennig’s play is genuinely intriguing as the flashbacks increasingly show that Bess is likely not as innocent as she claims she is. Hennig even shows Bess on the point of ordering her wedding gown when Thom tells her that he is going to marry Catherine. In the second act, however, Hennig moves from historical fact into complete speculation that is simply too far-fetched to believe. Without giving away the plot, Hennig requires Bess’s unwaveringly Catholic sister Mary (Sara Farb*), later to be known as “Bloody Mary” for her persecution of Protestants, to aid the Protestant Bess in a way that would be as implausible for that character in the 21st century as it would be in the 16th.  

Hennig wants her play to be a show of “girl power” or “virgin power”, but fabricating an incredible plot is certainly no way to convince an audience. It is also completely unnecessary since the historical record shows that Elizabeth, though questioned for weeks by the regency council was, even at her young age, was able to out-reason and out-argue men who were her elders. The historical record gives stronger evidence of the 14-year-old girl’s power than the fanciful fiction Hennig invents and is, indeed, more in line with the many examples of strong contemporary teenaged women that Hennig cites in her Playwright’s Notes in the programme.

What makes The Virgin Trial watchable is Alan Dilworth’s taut, quick-paced direction and the full commitment of the actors.  Bahia Watson, who played Bess in The Last Wife, reprises the character here. The difference is that now that Bess is the central figure Watson’s limitations are more visible. The only emotion Watson seems able to give Bess is petulance even when the role calls for anger, sorrow, cunning or pride. Watson is definitely very good at playing a precocious 14-year-old, but even though Bess is strenuously maintaining a façade, Watson should be able to show us the emotions roiling beneath it. Also, Watson’s words become obscure when she speaks rapidly which is often just when her character expresses the most emotion.

Of Bess’s two tormentors, Eleanor and Ted, Hennig has strangely written the less interesting role for Eleanor. Yanna McIntosh lends the character a fiery intensity but then McIntosh is so skilled she can play fiery intensity in her sleep. Hennig has given McIntosh a character who is unvaryingly angry and mean and McIntosh unvaryingly fulfils the role. As for Ted, Hennig at least provides him a variety of ways in approaching Bess from cajoling to outright threats. Nigel Bennett is expert at having Ted make his nasty insinuations in the nicest possible way while seeming to enjoy the power games he is playing with Bess.

André Morin and Laura Condlln play Bess’s two associates and friends Parry and Ashley. At least Hennig allows us to see them briefly happy before she plunges them into the pain of torture and subsequent unresponsiveness. Both Morin and Condlln give painfully realistic performance of ordinary people placed under enormous duress.

Sara Farb, who played Mary in The Last Wife, returns in the role as the most realistic, sharp-witted character in the play. Farb masterfully conveys Mary’s profoundly cynical view of the world that suits a figure whose religion excludes her from ever taking the throne without a fight. In the dark, confused world of the play, Farb makes Mary a welcome voice of reason.  At the same time this makes the actions Hennig gives her later in the play, acting contrary to her religion, all the more unlikely. Why does Hennig play up their feelings of sisterhood when anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of English history knows they will soon be at war?

It may not have been Hennig’s intention but in this production Thom turns out to be the most complex character in the play. Are his actions noble or self-serving?  Does he really love Bess or is he just using her? His comportment in prison certainly suggests there is a better side to him than does his behaviour before his arrest. Brad Hodder makes Thom a dashing but enigmatic character. Somehow Hodder makes the force of Thom’s personality sweep doubts about his motives away while he is present only for them to arise slowly once he is absent.  

Those who liked Hennig’s The Last Wife will find The Virgin Trial quite a different play. It is darker in tone, non-linear in structure and, unfortunately, extraordinarily far-fetched even as speculative history. What’s worse, the history that we know about Elizabeth at this period is a sufficiently remarkable testament to her strength of personality and wit without having to invent an unbelievable fiction about her to explain it. Perhaps Hennig and Dilworth are counting on the audience’s ignorance of history to become involved in Hennig’s fiction. If so, counting on an audience’s ignorance is a cynical ploy and supplying a fictional version of events that runs contrary to what we know has become an all-too-tedious component of contemporary news.  

Christopher Hoile

*Note: This review is of the world premiere of The Virgin Trial at the Stratford Festival in 2017. Helen Knight now plays Mary. Otherwise the cast andd creative team are the same.

Photos: (from top) André Morin as Parry, Nigel Bennett as Ted, Yanna McIntosh as Eleanor, Laura Condlln as Ashley and Bahia Watson as Bess; Bahia Watson as Bess and Brad Hodder as Thom; Sara Farb as Mary, André Morin as Parry, Bahia Watson as Bess and Laura Condlln as Ashley. © 2017 Cylla von Tiedemann.

For tickets, visit www.soulpepper.ca.