Bridge-builder’s royalty-themed plays at Stratford Festival connects us to history
|Toronto Star 12 Jun 2019 at 04:50|
“Right out of the gate, I’m going to compare myself to Shakespeare,” says Kate Hennig with a big laugh. “Nothing like starting at the top, right?”
I’ve sat down for lunch in Stratford with Hennig to talk about her world-premiere play Mother’s Daughter and numerous other projects that have her criss-crossing Southern Ontario this summer. An image that comes up repeatedly in our conversation is that of Hennig’s work as a bridge, creating connections between generations of theatre artists, between audiences and material that might seem inaccessible, and between different aspects of professional theatre.
This first conceptual bridge she offers is to the past — to the work of Shakespeare, as explanation of the relationship between the three plays set in the Tudor period she has written for the Stratford Festival, all of which have been directed by Alan Dilworth. The Last Wife (which premiered in 2015) examines the life of Katherine Parr, who was married to Henry VIII when he died; The Virgin Trial (2017) is about the princess Bess before she became Queen Elizabeth I; and Mother’s Daughter focuses on Mary Tudor, known to history as “Bloody” Mary.
Hennig’s resistant to calling these plays a trilogy. She didn’t set out to write them as such, and she’s also not necessarily limiting the series to three: “I might write more history plays, is all I’m saying. And they might be about that period.” This is where the Shakespeare comparison comes in: Hennig points out that calling his plays about Henry IV and V a trilogy does not acknowledge their relationship to his other historical dramas, though they’re often grouped together in performance.
As she was completing The Last Wife, Hennig realized that she needed to cut a final section, about the sexualized relationship of Thomas Seymour, whom Parr married after Henry VIII died, with young Bess. That was “ending the play on Elizabeth’s story, and not on Katherine Parr’s story. So it was then I went, ‘I have to write another play,’ ” says Hennig.
And not just one more: “if I was going to write Elizabeth’s story, I was going to write Mary’s story.” As Henry VIII’s eldest surviving child, Mary Tudor became the first reigning queen of England: part of the story Hennig tells in Mother’s Daughter is of Mary’s execution of her cousin Lady Jane Grey to clear a way to the throne.
As Hennig explains in a program note, Mary is not “triumphant” like Elizabeth, not “ambitious” like Parr, and not “a martyr” like Jane. With the play she works to complicate the predominant historical narrative of Mary as a Catholic zealot — to understand the complicated woman behind the “bloody” reputation. A characteristic aspect of Hennig’s Tudor plays is that they’re written in today’s language (within the first few pages of Mother’s Daughter, Mary rallies her supporters by saying “let’s get the hell out of Dodge”).
“I’ve written contemporary plays with historic content, as opposed to modern-dress historical plays,” says Hennig. “The arguments are contemporary. The arguments are arguments that we’re having right now, and that they likely didn’t have back then. The setting … actually helps us to be able to frame our human experience within the context of history. All my plays are about that.”
As her playwriting career blossomed over the past five years, another opportunity came Hennig’s way: since 2017 she has been associate artistic director of the Shaw Festival. As Hennig explains (using Shaw artistic director Tim Carroll’s favoured nickname), “TC and I are friends,” and he was looking for someone to fill the position when its previous incumbent, Eda Holmes, left to take over the Centaur Theatre in Montreal. Hennig describes her work as “a real sounding board for TC. We meet a lot about ideas that he has. I play the devil’s advocate very well … I give him the context of theatre history in this country and this community in order that he can frame his programming, his planning” (Carroll is English and moved to Canada for the Shaw job).
Hennig participates in numerous aspects of the Shaw fest’s activities including casting, public representation, and training. At Carroll’s invitation, she is also a writer in the 2019 season: her version of Cyrano de Bergerac begins performances in late July, directed by Chris Abraham with Tom Rooney in the title role.
Hennig is also maintaining her acting career: she performed in the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre/Mirvish co-production of A Doll’s House, Part II earlier this year. While finding a way to fit this into everything else she’s doing was hard, she felt supported: “I went to TC and I said, ‘I have to do this play.’ And he was like, ‘OK, we’ll make it work.’ He understands that I have to be the artist I am first and foremost.”
Is she tired? Oh yeah, she’s tired. After our lunch she was headed to a preview matinee of Mother’s Daughter and then driving the 180 kilometres to Shaw for an evening Cyrano rehearsal. “I have to say, I think I’ve bitten off a little too much,” says Hennig. “My priority becomes making sure that the integrity of my work doesn’t suffer, but what’s suffering instead is my human relationships … I must be very mindful of that in the future and really know that I can only do so much.”
But then a little steel comes out, when talking about how hard it is to resist all these welcome opportunities: “I’ve worked for 38 years. I’ve worked. People are like, ‘wow, you’re so lucky.’ And I’m like, ‘OK, lucky.’ … I can say that word. But somebody else can’t say that about me, because I have worked so hard to get what I have. And to have these opportunities. And then, I also take great responsibility in making sure that other people have opportunities as well.”
This is where some of the bridging work comes in, at Shaw and elsewhere: “I feel like I’m a generational bridge … my generation, which was predominantly white and Euro-centric, needs to bridge with this new generation. And there needs to be back and forth.”
When I ask her if there’s anything she’s like to say that I’ve not asked her, Hennig replies: “What I really want to do is shout out the actors” in Mother’s Daughter. “I just want to say what an honour it’s been working with these people and how hard they have worked to communicate my ideas and my words. Like, really hard. They worked really hard.”
Mother’s Daughter plays at the Studio Theatre in Stratford through October 13. Stratfordfestival.com and 800-567-1600. Cyrano de Bergerac plays at the Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, from July 27-October 20. Shawfest.com and 800-511-7429.