Review: Complex, uneven, The Virgin Trial at GCTC speaks clearly across the centuries to our time

Anie Richer and Lydia Riding in a scene from The Virgin Trial. Photo: Andrew Alexander.

At one point in The Virgin Trial, Kate Hennig’s fleet, modern-day crime drama about Queen Elizabeth I as a teenager, the future monarch proclaims, “I can be anything I set my mind to.”

It sounds like a variation on that silly bromide, “You can be anything you choose to be.” However, in the case of young Bess, as she’s known to all and sundry, it’s a fact. Indeed, a young woman’s resolute creation of herself in the face of gargantuan odds – read, a power structure embedded in older, predatory males – is what gives Bess’s story as told by Hennig its sharp, contemporary urgency.

Now at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, The Virgin Trial is the sequel to The Last Wife, Hennig’s oft-produced show about Henry VIII’s widow Katherine Parr that played GCTC a couple of seasons ago. That play ended with Bess and her older, half-sister Mary – who will be the focus of Hennig’s next play in her Tudor trilogy — preparing to stride into the future following the death of Parr.

With the new play, we’re in the future. And with the Tudors still nominally on the throne in the person of Bess’s younger brother Edward VI, that future is rife with drama and intrigue, fodder of which Hennig makes the most.

Bess, a precocious 14-year-old played with budding regal self-possession by Lydia Riding, is being investigated for treason. Seems she may have been part of a plot to do away with the king by her ambitious and unlikeable stepfather, Thom Seymour (Attila Clemann, who uncharacteristically overacts). Complicating matters – and complications trailed the Tudors like the spaniel that the ineffectual Thom shot when he snuck into the king’s quarters – is the suspicion of a love affair between Bess and Thom, who is Parr’s widower (are you still with me?).

The Lord Protector Ted (Chris Ralph) grills Bess on her involvement with the assassination plot. Superficially brimming with bonhomie, Ted is insidious but ultimately no match for Bess. He’s joined in the questioning by his cohort Eleanor (a chilling Kristina Watt), who would happily clap God himself onto the rack if she deemed it advantageous.

There’s no rack in The Virgin Trial, but cruelty in all its incarnations permeates the play, just as it always has – and presumably will — human nature. Caught up in it are Bess’s pals Ashley (Kate Smith) and Parry (Cassel Miles), whose loyalties are sorely tested.

All this doesn’t exactly bode well for a young woman who has her eye on the throne.  But for Bess, it’s a goad to nurture the skills of strategizing (some might call it scheming), continually taking the measure of others including her cynical half-sister Mary (Anie Richer), and dissembling when it suits her purpose, all skills that would eventually make her the powerful ruler she became.

Hennig’s Bess is fascinating, a person who, without appearing to be, is always 10 steps ahead of anyone else.

Part girl and part woman, she’s at a pivotal point in her young life, and Hennig explores with insight and compassion both the powers – charm, innocence, sexuality – and the uncertainties that attend a 14-year-old female, or at least this 14-year-old female.

Virginity, or perhaps lack thereof, is a central metaphor in all this, one that Bess plays to her advantage. “Can I create a version of Elizabeth Tudor that suits my agenda?” she asks, a semi-rhetorical question that applies to all aspects of her young life.   

Hennig’s story is as complex as Bess herself. It echoes with issues of sexual politics, female empowerment, and identity. Like any good modern-crime story, it also jumps around in time, giving us multiple perspectives on the action, characters and issues at hand. That makes for multiple scene changes, a clunky element in the play and one that director Eric Coates can’t quite get around in this production.

That problem aside, along with some uneven moments by most of the performers, The Virgin Trial speaks loud and clear to our own age and leaves one wondering why we don’t really change too much over the centuries.

The Virgin Trial is a GCTC production. It was reviewed Thursday. At the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre until Sept. 30. Tickets:

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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.