While The Last Wife features some fine acting, looks incredible, and is intriguing, I wanted to pause the action to use the washroom, refill my wine, and check my phone.
Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife, opening the 2019-2020 season at Neptune Theatre, is a modern take on Henry VIII’s last of his six wives, Katherine Parr; herself married three times before her final marriage to the monarch. As the program notes: while the story’s details are the same, the words are not.
Act one lays the groundwork as we see the brief courtship between Henry and Kate and discover her affair with Thom, an up-and-comer in the king’s military squad. We learn of Henry’s three children, daughters Mary and Bess, and son Eddie, who is the rightful male heir to the throne. A little too patriarchal for the strong-willed Kate, she sets out to change history. There’s a lot of dialogue in this first act, and while most of it is very good with an abundance of humorous quips, its verbosity is tiring.
The second act kicks into gear though, as Henry goes to war and Kate takes over, molding Mary and Bess into heirs. A scene between the three women is electric with its feminist strength as the trio plot, plan, and prioritize the kingdom’s needs and necessities while at war.
That’s the problem. Most of Hennig’s writing is fantastic with scenes of anticipation including Thom using young Eddie to tell Kate all the things he wants to do to her, and you would have to be celibate to not get hot-and-bothered in the parlay between Henry and Kate as they dance around the consummation of their relationship. But in those scenes where little happens, one wishes Hennig had a stronger dramaturg.
The performance of the night goes to Jodee Richardson, portraying King Henry VIII as both a complex monster, a devoutly uninterested monarch, and an antihero you want to know. Alternately sexy, vile. and everything in between he gleefully chews the scenery, spits it out, and the audience is right there with him. He’s awful, and every minute is wonderful.
As Kate, Stephanie MacDonald had a bit of a rough go off the top, but quickly found her footing leading to a glorious act one ending as she assumes regent in Henry’s absence. MacDonald runs the gamut of emotions as a loving mother, secretive lover, and equal to Henry. Cutting a striking figure in Jane MacLellan’s svelte costumes MacDonald struts and sashays, leaving little doubt Kate knows what she can bring to the table, even if the men are oblivious.
As the two daughters, Lesley Smith and Koumbie don’t fare as well their counterparts on stage.
Smith channels Cruella de Vil with Cruel Intentions to bring a Mary who is conniving but with little sense of reason. It is difficult to reconcile someone so angry when they fully know their fate and have a seemingly disinterested hand at changing her circumstances. It doesn’t help that in the world of modernity Hennig has created, she saddles Mary with some of the worst dialogue including references to her father as “Daddy-O” and proclaiming “hogwash” when faced with something she doesn’t like. Everyone else drops the f-bomb in the show, why can’t Mary? Smith’s icy delivery, however, lands several zingers.
Koumbie faces the opposite problem, especially in act one. Playing a role ten years her junior director Natasha MacLellan allows her to fall into the trope of delivering her lines in a sing-song teen voice and skipping around the stage to show she is younger than she is. Koumbie fares better in the second act as she matures and, like her sister and stepmother, realizes her full potential.
David Patrick Flemming cuts a dashing figure as Thom and while he has fantastic scenes when paired with Parr or Henry, as written the character has little to do than pout about the state of his relationship with Kate. A late act one scene where he stumbles drunk into the royal bedchamber has little impact and even less motivation.
Rounding out the cast is a cherubic Issac Neaves as the would-be king, Eddie, who would rather play chess or with his ships than worry about his future.
The Last Wife will mesmerize fans of The Tudors or The Crown, and for a good part I was too. But much like Henry VIII, The Last Wife doesn’t seem to know when it’s time to throw in the towel.
The Last Wife by Kate Hennig. Directed by Natasha MacLellan. A Neptune Theatre production on stage at Neptune Theatre’s Fountain Hall (1593 Argyle St, Halifax) until October 6. Visit neptunetheatre.com for tickets and information.