Review: The Last Wife (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 30 – Sep 29, 2019
Playwright: Kate Hennig
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Emma Chelsey, Emma Harvie, Simon London, Nikki Shiels, Bishanyia Vincent, Ben Wood
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
In Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife, we watch Catherine Parr make the most of an unfortunate situation when she is forced to marry King Henry VIII. Not content with being wallflower and figurehead, she finds ways to be useful, trying to place herself in a position of power, with mixed results, but hugely instrumental in the reinstatement of princesses Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession. The play imagines its characters with contemporary sensibilities and a corresponding modern language, each one is given a sense of cheeky sass that renders an entertaining immediacy for their storytelling. Not quite an entirely feminist reckoning of the past, The Last Wife is English history from a new perspective, the reframe of which provides a richer understanding of what had happened, and more importantly, of how women continue to have to navigate the patriarchy.

Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the production emphasises dynamics in these legendary relationships, able to impress upon us the intimate family problems of the royals, that bear reverberations that continue to affect us today. Its discussions about gender politics however, feel rudimentary, as do design elements that are at best adequate. Work on sound (uncredited) in particular is disappointing, often discordant with stage action, and lacking in elegance with how its cues are executed.

Actor Nikki Shiels’ portrayal of the queen is delicate, and although successful with the naturalism she introduces to the show, her Catherine Parr seldom exudes enough power for the narrative to really affect or inspire. The king is played by Ben Wood, whose irrepressible comic impulses prove enjoyable. While the two have a comfortable chemistry as lovers, they lack a cohesion in styles that would help us achieve a deeper appreciation of nuances in their scenes together. A young Elizabeth, the future queen, is made thoroughly enamouring by Emma Harvie, whose immaculate timing and exquisite charm, offer a generous sprinkling of star quality in the support role.

In every tragic victim, an alternate story can likely be written about their strength and ingenuity. Old tales about sad women reflect our conditioned need to see women languish. We are accustomed to an acceptance of women’s suffering, and we have learned to think of her pain as inevitable, as though there is beauty in that resignation. In The Last Wife, we see the women around Henry VIII exercise their autonomy whenever conditions permitted. We have for centuries, made lemonade from the lemons that are given. Adversity figures in many of our experiences, but the accompanying resilience and resourcefulness that get us through hardship need to propel us to something beyond survival.