Just as with much of Tudor family history, The Virgin Trial itself is a question of fact or fiction, believability or dishonesty, and the speculations bred from the unknown.
Canadian playwright Kate Hennig kicks off the Great Canadian Theatre Company season with The Virgin Trial, the second installment of a modern take on the Tudor family. Hennig’s first play, The Last Wife, was regarded as an instant success and toured the country to the tune of positive reviews. I had the pleasure of reviewing this performance at the GCTC a few years ago and can still recall silently cheering for Catherine Parr, King Henry VIII’s last wife and feminist powerhouse protagonist.
To say this sequel had quite the bill to live up to could be taken as a understatement.
Although I’m sure we can all recall some of the salacious details of King Henry VIII’s unorthodox romantic life, it’s definitely worth conducting a quick online refresher of the who’s who in this narrative. In her last play, Hennig left us with the death of Catherine Parr and the acceptance of King Henry’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth in line for succession of the throne.
The Virgin Trial plays out like a classic TV crime thriller circling around an investigation launched against Bess (Lydia Riding), known more historically as Elizabeth I, after her step-father Thom Seymour (Attila Clemann) is suspected to have made an attempt on King Edward VI’s life and murdered of the royal spaniel.
The charge: Treason.
The twist: Thom is also believed to be Bess’ lover, uncontrollably bewitched by her virginal purity and innocence.
The question: How much does Bess truly know about the murder plot?
The play follows the tale of a long speculated relationship between 40-year-old Thom and 14-year-old Bess – a bond historically rife with tickle fights, morning bedroom encounters and an appointed chaperone assigned to Bess’ room every night.
Coming into her own on stage, we watched Riding harden from flippant young girl into a calculating woman. Her politics, sexuality and virginity pivotal in her transformation. Riding thrives in the audience’s uncertainty in her innocence. As the future virginal queen, you want to believe in her goodness but can’t ignore the underlying inherent distrust for her character.
The ruthless interrogation duo, Lord Protector Edward Seymour, Ted (Chris Ralph) and his right hand Eleanor (Kristina Watts) are a force as their shockingly contemporary Abu Ghraib torture tactics have them playing bad cop and badder cop. Watt particularly delivered an impressively cold performance that you’ll delight to dislike from beginning to end.
The only returning member of Hennig’s first play is Mary (Anie Richer) with yet another phenomenal job in her supporting role. Humourous, strong willed and compelling, I aspire to see Richer return in the third installment of the trilogy.
Jennifer Goodman’s set design was one of the more large scale and impressive I’ve seen at the GCTC. It added to the desolate component of the play, conveying just how deep Bess had to climb to reclaim her reputation. Some unique touches were the transparent tortue screen centre stage and the use of real rain because, England.
From actress to playwright, it’s clear Hennig has found her niche in telling empowering tales of Tudor women. With the promise of one more adaptation in the works to round out the trilogy, I can’t wait to see what she reimagines for us next.
See The Virgin Trial at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre (1233 Wellington Street W) until September 30, 2018. Tickets are $30–45, available online at www.gctc.ca and at the theatre’s box office. Admission to Sunday matinees is on a pay-what-you-can basis.