Review of 2019 Stratford Festival Production
Mary, Queen of England gets some good press. It comes from Kate Hennig in her play Mother’s Daughter now playing in the Studio Theatre in Stratford.
Hennig has given us The Last Wife about Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth spouse and The Virgin Trial about the troubles of Elizabeth I before she succeeded to the throne. Mother’s Daughter is about Elizabeth’s half-sister and predecessor Queen Mary who has earned the unfortunate soubriquet of Bloody Mary. Do not confuse her with Mary Queen of Scots.
Mary’s mother was Katherine of Aragon (Catalina in the play) , Henry VIII’s first wife and as the title suggests we get a double portrait of the two queens. Hennig gives us a largely positive portrait of Mary brilliantly acted by Shannon Taylor. Mary is intelligent, resolute, attractive, merciful, scrupulous and tolerant. Not all at once and not all the time but we do see these traits in her. Dressed in a long skirt and white blouse at the beginning and donning a military uniform and boots later in the play, Mary never veers from being independent, assertive and self-assured.
She must deal with her mother Katherine who tells her that she is a figment of her imagination. Queen Katherine was dumped by Henry after 23 years of marriage on the pretext that his marriage to her was unlawful. She had been married to Henry’s brother when both were young, and Henry found biblical support that the marriage was sinful. When he married her, he found biblical support that marrying his brother’s widow was fine because they had not consummated the marriage.
In the play Katherine also called Catalina (played by Irene Poole) is a vengeful, angry and ruthless woman who wants her daughter to restore Catholicism to England. Mary stands her ground for tolerance and reconciliation, at least in the beginning.
Mary has two friends/advisors in Bassett (Beryl Bain) and Susan (Maria Vacratsis) who provide contradictory advice on what to do about rebellious subjects and competing claims to the crown. She also has Simon (Gordon Patrick White) a friend, diplomat and messenger about happenings in the outside world.
The immediate problem is what to do with Lady Jane (Andrea Rankin), a teenager who has been given the throne, and her relatives.
Then the major issue is dealing with Princess Elizabeth (Jessica B. Hill) and her mother Anne Boleyn who, like Katherine appears as a figment of the imagination or a ghost. Elizabeth and Anne are played by the same actor. We see the animosities and difficult relationships among the characters. Elizabeth wants the throne and Mary wants to circumvent that by getting pregnant and providing an heir. Alas, it does not work, and Mary is not ready to execute Elizabeth.
The costumes are mostly modern or non-descript and the language of the play is completely modern, colloquial with frequent use of expletives. Expression like “gee, whiz” and “who is running the joint?’ give the dialogue a less than elevated flavour at times but the pacing of the arguments is brisk and often powerful. All handled well by director Alan Dilworth but you do have to get used to modern, colloquial and at times salty English spoken by 16th century characters in mostly modern dress.
The set by Lorenzo Savoini consists of a large table and chair with border lights in the back and on the stage in different colors designed by Kimberly Purtell.
Bloody Mary has been getting bad press for more than four centuries, but recently more sympathetic reviews have appeared. The fact remains that despite her self-described tolerance, she became a tyrant and burned a few hundred Protestants at the stake.
In the final scene we see Mary and Elizabeth standing posthumously in Westminster Abbey looking at the tomb that the two of them share. Elizabeth became Gloriana, poor Mary remains bloody while their cousin Mary, Queen of Scots is more famous than both largely because she had her head chopped off. Sic passit gloria mundi.
We get a fascinating and imaginative look at some English history mixed with some fiction but never failing to entertain.
Mother’s Daughter continues in repertory until October 13, 2019 at the Studio Theatre. 34 George Street, Stratford, Ontario