GCTC: Playwright tracks the Tudors and our fascination with sexual power

Lydia Riding and Attila Clemann in a scene from Kate Hennig's The Virgin Queen. Photo: Andrew Alexander

We can’t get enough of the Tudors, can we? From movies and historical fiction to the television series The Tudors, the tumultuous times of Henry VIII and his daughter Queen Elizabeth I, in particular, have long held us in thrall.

Toronto playwright Kate Hennig is not immune. She’s part way through a Tudor trilogy of her own that begins with Katherine Parr, Henry’s last wife and a prototypical feminist, continues with Elizabeth, and will end with that other powerful Tudor queen, “Bloody” Mary.

The Great Canadian Theatre Company produced the first play, The Last Wife, two years ago to much acclaim. Now it’s staging the follow-up, The Virgin Trial, a modern-dress crime drama focusing on Elizabeth as an astute 14-year-old.

Hennig believes our fascination with the Tudors and their queens springs from the equity women often had with men at the time, which also means their lives were better documented and are therefore now more accessible than those of women in other periods.

Sex and its outcomes also figure large in our attention to the Tudor gang, according to Hennig. “It’s fascinating that Henry had six wives and that none of his children had any children, and that Henry was on a quest for a huge dynasty and it didn’t happen.”

The playwright says her own journey into the period was piqued by an interest in tyrannical, male rulers and her puzzling over the relationship between those men and their wives and daughters.

Her interest was ignited by the Arab Spring. As that cultural and political revolution swept across the Middle East and North Africa beginning in 2010, Hennig says, “I was looking at (men like the Libyan dictator Muammar) Gaddafi and wondering, ‘God, what’s it like being in bed with a man like that? They’re so megalomaniacal, so what is the power dynamic?’

“I talked to some women, really strong feminists, when I was (writing The Last Wife) and I asked them if they would use sex to save their lives. They said, ‘Yes, absolutely, because it would be in my power to do that.’

“But when that power is taken from you, that’s a different thing.”

Sexual politics and female empowerment course through The Last Wife and, by all reports, The Virgin Trial.

In the new play, 14-year-old Elizabeth is implicated in a murder plot involving the shadowy Thomas Seymour, who married the widow Parr. He’s been charged with treason for attempting to assassinate Elizabeth’s nine-year-old brother, King Edward VI.

Not wanting to reveal too much, Hennig hesitates to detail the plot and the role that Elizabeth’s supposed virginity – was she or wasn’t she a virgin, and what are the implications swirling around that? – plays in the storyline.

But she does allow that, in writing the script, she was singularly interested in the “power” of a 14-year-old girl, especially one as precocious as the future queen.

Being 14 is a pivotal point in a female’s development, she says, one where a person is both a girl and a woman. In the case of Elizabeth, “How was she still a girl and how could she use that, and how was she a woman and how could she use that?”

As Hennig learned while researching the play, the future queen had a kind of innate genius for understanding leadership. She may have received guidance from her father and others but she put it through her own “sieve,” extracting what she needed for her own ends.

As Hennig wrote the play, the Elizabeth that emerged sometimes surprised her creator. Among other unexpected qualities, says Hennig, was the character’s “audacity” – not a bad attribute to possess when you’ve got to navigate times as uncertain as Britain in the 16th century and deal with the folks populating the royal court.

Hennig had to do her own navigating when writing the play.

Faced with conflicting research information about the characters and the times, she stuck to her theatrical gaze. “I’m looking for what’s most dramatic, not what’s most substantiated, because that’s drama. I’m not writing a documentary — I’m looking at the lives of girls and women through a Tudor lens.”

The Virgin Trial is at GCTC Sept. 11-30 (Sept 11 & 12, previews; opening night, Sept. 13). Tickets: GCTC box office, 613-236-5196, gctc.ca

Share Post
Written by

Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.