Stage Door Review

Mother’s Daughter

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

✭✭

by Kate Hennig, directed by Alan Dilworth

Stratford Festival, Studio Theatre, Stratford

May 27-October 27, 2019;

Soulpepper Theatre Company, Yonge Centre, Toronto

January 16-February 9, 2020

Bess: “Women beware women”

With Mother’s Daughter, Kate Hennig completes her Queenmaker Trilogy that re-examines the lives of the female Tudor royals. It began with The Last Wife (2015) about Katherine Parr and continued with The Virgin Trial (2017) about Elizabeth I. In this trilogy where historical figures speak and behave as if they lived in the present, Mother’s Daughter is by far the most successful. Mary I (1516-58) is best known by the byname “Bloody Mary” because of she was responsible for the deaths of 283 religious dissenters. But Hennig’s play is fascinating in taking an alternative view of Mary and exploring what forces made her take actions that later caused her to be so despised. Guided by the sure hand of director Alan Dilworth and crowned with a superlative performance by Shannon Taylor as Mary, Mother’s Daughter is a gripping examination of how cruelty is inevitably a part of power. 

Mary I was the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, first wife to Henry VIII. When Katherine produced no male heirs Henry sought an annulment of their marriage by the Pope who refused. By then Henry’s eye was attracted by Anne Boleyn, whom he married. Thomas Cranmer declared Henry’s marriage to Katherine void and his marriage to Anne valid. Henry, broke with Rome and declared himself head of the Church of England. Anne bore Henry a daughter Elizabeth, who would later become Elizabeth I. 

After Henry had Anne executed for treason and other crimes, Henry married Jane Seymour, who bore him the male heir he had longed for, Edward, who became King Edward VI at age nine when Henry died. Pressured by his regents, Edward made out “My devise for the Succession” in which both Mary and Elizabeth were excluded from the line of succession for being illegitimate, and Lady Jane Grey (c.1537-54), daughter-in-law of his chief regent John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, and granddaughter of Henry VIII’s younger sister, declared heir. She was the de facto queen of England for nine days until the Privy Council of England threw its support behind Mary and had Jane imprisoned before she was ever crowned. 

This is the point where Mother’s Daughter begins. Contrary to popular notions of what “Bloody Mary” was like, Hennig portrays Mary I (Shannon Taylor) as a conscientious woman who believes a ruler should embody the Christian virtues of magnanimity and mercy. Mary, however, is surrounded by advisors to tell her that to secure her position, she must kill Lady Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin), all of Grey’s supporters and kill her sister half Bess (Jessica B. Hill), who also has a claim to the throne.

Like the good angel and bad angel device in medieval morality plays, Hennig shows Mary constantly faced with contradictory advice. Susan (Maria Vacratsis), who is likely Susan Clarencieux (1510-64), Mary’s confidante and favourite lady-in-waiting, always supports Mary’s inclination to moderation. In contrast, Bassett (Beryl Bain), likely Anne Bassett (1520-58), Prince Arthur’s step-daughter and another lady-in-waiting, always supports action, no matter what, to secure Mary’s hold on the throne. Meanwhile, Mary must contend with advice issued more as commands from Simon (Gordon Patrick White), likely Simon Renard (1513-73), the Burgundian ambassador to England who also represented the interests of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. His views, in line with European practices are pure Realpolitik and a harsher form of Bassett’s advice. 

If this were not enough, Hennig also has Mary haunted by the ghost of Catalina (Irene Poole), as Katherine of Aragon was known in Spain. Contrary to Shakespeare and Fletcher’s portrayal of Katherine in Henry VIII, Hennig depicts her as an angry spirit solely bent on revenge for the way Henry treated her and Mary. She, too, urges Mary ruthlessly to root out anyone who claims to be Henry’s rightful heir and, worse than that, to make Roman Catholicism the state religion once again.

In keeping with Hennig’s modern presentation of history, Mary knows that Catalina is not a ghost but just a figment of her imagination. In that case, Catalina must represent thoughts that Mary has but tries to repress. A sign of that is the appearance of a second ghost, Anne Boleyn (also Jessica B. Hill), who urges Mary to further religious freedom.

In spite of Hennig’s modern approach, Mother’s Daughter turns out to be a reinvention of the form of medieval drama known as a psychomachia in which various allegorical vices and virtues battle for control of the protagonist. The question that grips us throughout the action is whether Mary’s intention to be fair and merciful can hold out against the internal and external forces urging her to to be selfish and merciless.

Shannon Taylor superbly illustrates how Mary is gradually worn down by political and psychological pressures to commit acts she believes are morally reprehensible. Hennig even has Bess chide her for not being tough enough to be queen. Thus, contrary to what one might expect in a play about “Bloody Mary”, Taylor makes us sympathize with the agonies she endures in trying to set a positive example as Britain’s first reigning queen and in trying to avoid the deeds that would make her secure on the throne. Taylor makes the grief Mary feels over having to order the execution of Lady Jane Grey all-too-believable.

Irene Poole has the distinction of being one of the few actors – perhaps the only actor – to play two versions of Katherine of Aragon in the same season. The Catalina whom Hennig conjures up is completely different from the Katherine of Shakespeare and Fletcher. In the latter's Henry VIII, Katherine comes off as the most sympathetic character in the play. In her moving death scene she makes peace with her enemies and her destiny. Hennig’s Catalina has done nothing of the kind. She rages against the injustices done to her and to Mary and focusses on the best means of Mary’s wreaking revenge. Poole portrays Hennig’s ferocious Catalina, seething with hatred, just as powerfully as she portrays Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Katherine who beautifully moves from righteous indignation to acquiescence to fate.

One of the play’s more important performances comes from Andrea Rankin as Lady Jane Grey. Mary’s visits with Jane are the points by which we can chart Mary’s growth as a leader as well as her decline from her high moral standards. Rankin’s Jane is like a child in her innocence yet fervent and unshakeable in her Protestant faith. Mary at first misunderstands Jane’s behaviour as defiant, but soon comes to realize that no deceit or ambition lies in Jane at all. Mary sees that Jane is a victim of others’ machinations for power just as she herself has become. One of the most powerful moments in the play is Mary’s realization of her similarity to Jane. One of the play’s more moving moments is when Jane accepts her death sentence without rancour or remonstration. Hennig uses Lady Jane Grey’s behaviour as the model of the fate that meets those who hold to their ideals in a corrupt world and Rankin with quiet dignity embodies that doomed idealist.

Jessica B. Hill keeps her roles as Bess and as Anne Boleyn so distinct that only when I read the programme after the show did I realize the same actor played both. Her Bess is just as cynical and bold as her Anne is sincere and unpretentious. 

The other characters serve primarily as counsellors and messengers. Maria Vacratsis and Beryl Bain do their best to give personality to Susan and Bassett through the ardour of their advice and the intensity of their reactions when it is or is not followed. In contast, Gordon Patrick White as Simon seems perpetually in a funk as if assuming Mary will reject whatever he says even as he says it.

One of the multitude of themes in Shakespeare’s history plays is the temptation to tyranny inherent in absolute power. Margaret and Richard III are examples of people who become tyrants because they are already evil. King John is tempted to commit a tyrannic act and is forever haunted by having been tempted. Hennig paints Mary I’s situation as closest to that of King John. John’s command to kill Prince Arthur is the turning point in that play as Mary’s command to execute Jane is in this.

Hennig’s play is fascinating above all for its examination of the negative effect that exerting and maintaining power has on the exerting and maintaining of idealism. Mother’s Daughter not only illuminates a corner of English history few know well but does so in a way that could not be more relevant to the political climate we live in today. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: Shannon Taylor as Mary and Irene Poole as Catalina; Andrea Rankin as Lady Jane Grey; Irene Poole as Catalina, Shannon Taylor as Mary and Jessica B. Hill as Anne Boleyn. © 2019 David Hou.

For tickets, visit www.stratfordfestival.ca.