Some of the best theatre I saw earlier this year was on a whim, including the closing performance of Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage (I scored a rush ticket), and The Last Wife, a Soulpepper remount of a Stratford play. Taking advantage of my 30 and under cheap ticket status, I went in knowing only that it was a contemporary feminist spin on the relationship between Henry VIII and his final wife, Catherine Parr. I walked out devoted to Maev Beatty, who played Parr, and determined to see the second part of this planned trilogy about the Tudor Queens when it premiered over the summer in Stratford. Several months and one long, but not uncomfortable, bus ride later, I’m happy to report that The Virgin Trial lived up to my anticipation. Intense, well-written, and exceptionally acted, it’s a worthy successor to The Last Wife, and left me salivating for part three. Full disclosure, I attended The Virgin Trial while it was still in previews and aspects of the show may have changed since the performance I saw.
Inspired by historical personages and events, The Virgin Trial is centered on the aftermath of Thomas (“Thom”) Seymour’s attempt to force his way into the rooms of young King Edward VI. Following his capture and arrest, fifteen-year-old Princess Elizabeth (“Bess”) is implicated and questioned about her role in the events, and about the nature of her relationship with Thom, her step-father and possible lover. Director Alan Dilworth keeps the tension running high and the audience on the edge of their seat, but the play really comes together in the second act, as we see more of the underestimated Bess’ guile that lies beneath her projected innocence.
Darker and more intense than its predecessor, The Virgin Trial‘s starkly modern set, and location in the small Stratford Studio Theatre with its an unusually steep rise, has a vaguely claustrophobic feeling, as though the audience is trapped in the interrogation room with Bess. Torture scenes take place behind a backlit semi-opaque curtain at the rear of the stage and are eerily reminiscent of images from Abu Ghraib. Although most of the present day scenes take place at a metal table, flashbacks to conversations Bess has had with Thom and with Mary add movement and colour into the space.
Bahia Watson is excellent as Bess, expertly capturing the point where girlhood and womanhood intersect. Under interrogation in the play’s present she proclaims her innocence of Thom’s scheme to break into Edward VI’s apartments at Hampton Court with a girlish vulnerability. However, through flashbacks to conversations with her attendants (Laura Condlln as governess Ashley and André Morin as Parry), Thom (Brad Hodder), and, in some of the play’s best scenes, her sister Mary (Sara Farb), Bess’ agile mind and guile is seen at work. Her role in Thom’s actions is slowly revealed as Bess matures and begins to shape her image through the persona of ‘virgin power’.
Some of the best fictional antagonists I’ve encountered are those who can turn on a dime from a genial person who seems to have values to someone who casually carries out acts of violence for his or her own purposes. Ted is one such antagonist, reassuring Bess that he will ensure that she receives a pot of tea while torturing her friends for information. It’s a chilling performance and Nigel Bennett is fabulous in the role.
The standout, however, is Sara Farb, in a smaller role this time around as she performs Juliet in repertory at the festival. Farb received entrance applause more than once at the performance I attended. Although I suspect this reflects her status as a beloved Stratford actress rather than her role in this particular play, she stole scenes as the acerbic, blunt, yet good-hearted Mary, who assists Bess when she needs it most.
Although audiences may get more out of The Virgin Trial if they’ve seen the companion play first, it can just as effectively be watched as a standalone piece. Playwright Kate Hennig’s dialogue is sharp and intelligent, skillfully using contemporary dialogue put in historical context to tell her story, a quality that is mirrored in the superb costuming. Modern dress is used, including business suits for Ted and Eleanor, but some outfits draw inspiration from the renaissance. Bess’ costumes are of particular note, as she initially wears a flowered dress, which is both tailored to her body and yet modestly girlish, and a symbolic white renaissance inspired gown as the end of the play as she reinvents herself as a virgin Princess who is actively in control of her image.
According to a 2016 interview playwright Kate Hennig gave to Timeline theatre, early drafts of the third play, Father’s Daughter, focus on Mary’s story as she becomes Queen of England, with Elizabeth and Lady Jane Grey, the 9 days Queen, also playing large roles. I can’t wait to see the conclusion to this stunning trilogy, and hope very much that The Virgin Trial, a dark and thrilling piece of theatre, will be remounted at Soulpepper like its predecessor so I have the chance to see it once more.
The Virgin Trial plays until September 30, 2017 at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Studio Theatre.
Photo (l-r) of André Morin (Parry), Nigel Bennett (Ted), Laura Condlln (Ashley), Yanna McIntosh (Eleanor), and Bahia Watson (Bess), by Cylla von Tiedemann.