By: Natalie Dewan
The Last Wife, Kate Hennig’s new play, will premiere at Stratford’s Studio Theatre on August 14th. As someone with an interest in history, who has recently spent three months in Stratford-upon-Avon (birthplace of Shakespeare and something of a Tudor history goldmine), the fact that this play is about the last wife of Henry VIII was enough to spark my interest.
Apparently I am not alone, as Kate Hennig’s “The Last Wife” has already sold out much of its run and been extended twice. But the more I learned about this wife, Katherine Parr (Kate in the play), and the playwright behind this new production, the more convinced I became that the coming together of these two Kates will be something special indeed.
Kate Hennig has been working as an actor, writer, and teacher for over twenty-five years. She returned to Stratford in 2013 (for what I can personally attest were fantastic performances as the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” and Golde in “Fiddler on the Roof“) after, as her Stratford bio humbly described, “22 years of doing lots of other stuff.”
This “other stuff” included a year on Broadway as Mrs. Wilkinson in “Billy Elliot,” a role in the Royal Shakespeare Company/National Arts Centre production of “The Penelopiad”, and years teaching voice and acting at the National Theatre School. She has also written several plays, which range from a full-length play set on a family farm in 1918 St. Catherine’s, to a two-person, one-act work based on Japanese legends.
Hennig has also written poetry, stories, articles for industry publications and two very popular blogs, chronicling her time working on “Billy Elliot” and “The Penelopiad”. Even a quick glance at these blogs is enough to see that Richard Ouzounian’s description of Hennig as “brisk [and] bright” is particularly apt. For example, her musings, in the Billy Elliot blog, on Halloween in New York are as entertaining as they are direct and insightful:
“It seems Halloween – like Carnivale – has become an opportunity to express one’s repressed self in a public display called costume. This reveals a tidy sum about our culture: the young women on the streets of New York clad in the most scanty, lacy, provocative attire possible… and their escorts mostly dressed as psycho-killers. Hmmm.”
I had the good fortune to speak with Hennig about “The Last Wife” (interview to be published here shortly), and found her to be as open, funny, insightful, and deeply reflective as these Halloween musings led me to expect. Within five minutes of speaking to her it was clear to me that she is genuinely passionate about theatre, and grateful for her role within it. When she says, for example, that she has been in “a lot of fantastic plays,” that little word, “fantastic,” which could so easily be read as touting her own work, instead expresses her admiration for those plays and the people behind them, and her joy in being a part of bringing them to life.
During our conversation, Hennig spoke a great deal about her interest in thinking and writing about women: their roles in society, their relationships with powerful men, their construction of a female history that was never recorded… in short, their lives. Now I for one cannot wait to hear what this dynamic woman had to say when she turned her pen towards what her website describes as not only a story about Katherine Parr, but “a powerful examination of patriarchy, hierarchy and the state of women’s rights in our world today.”
Antoni Cimolino seemed equally excited about the prospect when I spoke to him in June. As he described it, this play is “very much about how an intelligent, resourceful woman, deals with… one of the most… powerful and abusive men [in history].”
This intelligent, resourceful woman was as fascinating as she was important. Katherine Parr was the first Queen of England and Ireland, the first English queen (and one of the first women) to publish a book under her own name, and regent (and by all accounts, a good one) for several months while Henry was away on a military campaign.
Katherine was also a devoted stepmother to Henry’s three children, despite the generally-accepted view that she was in love with her fourth husband Thomas Seymour before Henry’s suit and only married him under duress.
As a stepmother, Katherine is credited with reconciling Henry with his two daughters and playing a large part in the creation of the Act that ensured that both Mary (who would become “Bloody Mary”) and Elizabeth (later the great Elizabeth I) were accepted as legitimate heirs. A great scholar herself, she is also credited in large part with Elizabeth I’s substantial education.
In the final entry of her “Penelopiad” blog, Kate Hennig wrote, “Women are great. Not always easy. But great: ‘of an extent, amount, or intensity considerably above the normal or average; of ability, quality, or eminence considerably above the normal or average.’”
Kate Hennig and Katherine Parr are both, in my opinion, considerably above-average women. I’m very much looking forward to hearing the voice that one Kate creates for another in a play that has been described in a Stratford press release as “startlingly contemporary” and by Cimolino as “a comedy of all things.” This combination of history with contemporary issues, and comedy with historical drama, does not sound easy, but it certainly has potential to be great.