WAM Theatre's modern-day look at King Henry VIII's 'Last Wife'

LENOX — Given the plethora of books, films, plays, TV series, paintings and even songs about King Henry VIII of England, we think we know him: a very large man with six wives whom he variously divorced or beheaded.

Less familiar is the one wife who survived him: Katherine Parr.

Thanks to playwright Kate Hennig's "The Last Wife," we will make the acquaintance of this brilliant, but often overlooked, queen. The play will make its Northeast regional premiere, produced by WAM Theatre, beginning Sunday at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theratre (after previews Friday and Saturday).

"The Last Wife" first premiered at the Stratford, Ontario, Festival in 2015, where it enjoyed a sold-out, extended run. Having seen that production, Kristen van Ginhoven, WAM's artistic director, selected it to open WAM's 2016 Fresh Takes Play Reading Series. Now, for the first time, a Fresh Takes piece is being given a WAM mainstage production.

The play is a natural fit for WAM's double mission: "producing theatrical events for everyone, with a focus on women theater artists and/or stories of women and girls" and "donating a portion of proceeds from those theatrical events to organizations that work to benefit the lives of women and girls in our communities and worldwide." WAM will donate 25 percent of the box office proceeds to The Soldier On Women's Program, which provides services to women veterans.

Hennig says her purpose in writing the play was to humanize the iconic figures who populated Henry's court.

"I want to imagine what made them do what they did," she writes in an introduction to the script. "It fascinates me to create these personal possibilities and then imagine how they might lead to some of the major decisions that history records."

To make the story more accessible, Hennig uses modern language and that most modern setting — a dysfunctional family.

Mary and Bess, Henry's daughters from two previous wives, have been declared illegitimate, and his sickly son, Eddie, remains the only heir to the throne.

Among her many accomplishments, Katherine restored Mary and Bess to the line of succession, reuniting the family. She took on the role of the children's tutor; her mentorship contributed to Bess maturing into the great monarch Elizabeth I.

Katherine was also accomplished in her own right. As the first woman in England to publish under her own name in English, she disseminated devotionals and translations of prayers from many languages. Further, while Henry was away at war, it was Katherine who petitioned to be regent in the interim, managing the country and the war with aplomb.

A major challenge in mounting this play was maintaining the balance between these larger-than-life archetypes and their everyday relationships, desires, contradictions and ambiguities.

During the casting process, John Hadden, who would eventually land the role of Henry VIII, was sure he wouldn't be considered because of his thin stature. But he was delighted to learn that the play "is not about the icon but about the issues," which affords the actors license to discard the stereotypes. According to director Kelly Galvin, the aim is to subvert the classical notion of Henry VIII. As explained by Nehassaiu deGannes, who plays Katherine (Kate) Parr, Hennig asks human questions of these people who have become myths and legends to us. "If these people lived now in what shape might they appear?"

In a recent post-rehearsal interview at the Bernstein theater with Galvin and deGannes, Hadden observed that Shakespeare (who authored his own version of Henry VIII's kingship) portrayed mythical characters in an anachronistic way to make the points he was interested in, though his plays were notoriously historically inaccurate. Hennig seems to be doing the same thing, except that both Hadden and deGannes praise her extensive research and accuracy, as well as her language and ability to fuse the classical and the contemporary more skillfully than any other contemporary playwright.

Human as they are, however, the characters are hardly mundane. Given their positions of power, as Galvin emphasizes, their decisions are inordinately important — often life-and-death. Though Henry began his reign as an enlightened despot, infections arising from a jousting injury eventually led to mental deterioration. Katherine determined to influence this erratic, frightening monarch and to benefit his daughters, while attempting to safeguard her marriage and, indeed, her life.

Galvin and set designer Juliana von Haubrich have sought to create a visual manifestation of the danger intrinsic to Henry's court through a series of corridors, mazes, nooks and secret places with things appearing out of nowhere. Scenes had to be fluid, as the characters jump from one location to another, forcing the space to constantly transform itself.

Galvin asserts that "The Last Wife" not only serves WAM's mission by presenting a prominent woman who uses her position to help the next generation of feminist leaders, but is also a "perfect play for now." By dramatizing how the "most personal is the most political and the most political is the most personal," she says, the play resonates through the prism of time to speak to us today.


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