King Henry VIII certainly had a way with the ladies! After all, he had six marriages, all to varying degrees of success. But it was his last wife, Catherine Parr (Kate), who had a way with the king. The Last Wife by Kate Hennig is a faintly historical drama/comedy set in a contemporary context. The language, the costumes and the interaction between men and women characters are perfectly familiar to us. This approach to storytelling helps explain why this play is a real crowd-pleaser.
The opening scene sees Kate (Nikki Shiels) trying to ward off the advances of Thom (Simon London). She is still married, and he is a counsel to the King. When they are interrupted by Henry (Ben Wood), both feign a platonic relationship, but Henry knows it’s much more physical than that. Close relationships are not encouraged in this workplace unless Henry is involved. So, he promptly assigns Thom a job in Holland and arranges for Kate to have a greater role in his court.
The story then models the historical courtship, marriage and deep bond between Henry and Kate. There are some clever and witty scenes which enable Nikki Shiels and Ben Wood to shine in their respective characters. When considering the King’s proposal, Kate confronts him with a modern-day pre-nuptial agreement setting out her assets and current worth. She even manages to get Henry to agree to a consensual-sex understanding; something, we suspect, Henry’s previous wives failed to negotiate.
In a delightful twist though, Henry inserts “To be courteous and compliant in bed” in Kate’s marriage vows. Later, the source of Henry’s aggravation is revealed to be a massive open wound on his leg that never heals. However, Kate’s sensitive nursing of the wound helps build an emotional bridge which soon calms the monstrous Monarch.
The Last Wife is certainly a story of female empowerment and barrier breaking. To demonstrate an intellect equal to or greater than the King was risky, especially when two previous wives were sentenced to death by their husband. So, the story of Catherine Parr is an inspiration. Henry proudly exclaims “I am a man and a king”. To which Kate replies “Oh good. Want a medal for that?”
By all accounts, Henry and Kate’s marriage was short but successful. There are lessons about blended families as well. Henry’s links with two daughters, Mary (Bishanyia Vincent) and Bess (Emma Harvey), both from different mothers, are strengthened by Kate’s involvement. And Henry’s son Eddie (Emma Chelsey), the future King, benefited from a rich education thanks to Kate as well.
The play itself was visually engaging, with classy evening dresses and tuxedoes and much action on the large Royal bed in centre-stage. The director, Mark Kilmurry has a knack at bringing the best out of cast and crew.
At 2 hours and 50 minutes, The Last Wife may be a touch too long for some. With an interesting plot, strong and assertive characters and a very talented cast, I recommend you catch a performance if you can. It brings Tudor history alive in a format we can thoroughly enjoy.
The Last Wife is playing at Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli until 29 September 2019. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au