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Mother’s Daughter is a compelling exploration of sexuality and power

Mother’s Daughter is a compelling exploration of sexuality and power
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By Kate Hennig. Directed by Alan Dilworth. Until Oct. 13 at the Studio Theatre, 34 George St. E., Stratford. stratfordfestival.ca or 1-800-567-1600

Don’t call it a trilogy — Kate Hennig’s series of Tudor-era history-ish plays may have originated as the Queenmaker Trilogy, but lately , preferring to leave the door open to return to this period again. So lucky for us, Mother’s Daughter, the third play Hennig has created with the Stratford Festival following 2015’s The Last Wife and 2017’s The Virgin Trial, is the last word we’ll hear from Hennig on the first queens of England for now, but hopefully not forever. As with the first two instalments, Hennig has once again proven her ability to funnel contemporary conversations around gender, power, sexuality and politics into the lives of these historical figures through vital, modern language. She is collaborating for the third time with director Alan Dilworth who also delivers a clear, compelling production.

That said, Mother’s Daughter does provide a satisfying pause in the narrative Hennig began in The Last Wife, focusing on the eighth and final wife of King Henry VIII, Katherine Parr, and her mentoring of her two young stepdaughters, Mary (daughter of Katherine of Aragon) and Elizabeth (daughter of Anne Boleyn), preparing them for the throne. While The Virgin Trial centres on Bess, caught up in adolescence and accusations of treason, Mother’s Daughter tracks Mary’s triumph against the odds to become England’s first reigning queen and the actions that led to the nickname “Bloody Mary.” Mary and Bess are the only constants through all three plays, and Mother’s Daughter is the clearest portrayal of just how interconnected their journeys to the throne are: we’ve witnessed them grow from squabbling children into rebellious teens, and now, through the performances of Shannon Taylor as Mary and Jessica B. Hill as Bess, into capable, clever queens. Taylor and Hill plot out these half-sisters like elastic bands — the more they try to resist each other, the more powerfully they reunite. This is for political purposes, yes; Bess is Mary’s biggest threat to the throne, and yet one of her closest allies in securing their royal claim back from whom they saw was their illegitimate cousin, Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin). But Hennig also gives this “Bloody Mary” a sensitive streak, one that strives for familial loyalty, forgiveness, and diplomacy over violence.

The Mary we met in The Last Wife and The Virgin Trial heavily signalled her future reputation as a murderous Catholic zealot — past productions dressed her in black from head to toe, clutching her crucifix and oozing contempt for the siblings who arrived after King Henry VIII divorced her mother, the Spanish Queen Katherine (or Catalina, as she is called in this play) of Aragon, and splitting England from the Roman Catholic Church. Mother’s Daughter is told from Mary’s perspective, and that’s immediately clear when Taylor enters the stage in a crisp white blouse and a luxurious cream floral skirt, and Bess is the one in black, the threat that’s constantly plotting in the shadows. Designer Lorenzo Savoini’s costumes are important indicators in Mary’s struggle as England’s ruler — a desire to maintain the country’s expectations of women, while also adopting a masculine militaristic attitude, and finally, donning the black dress of a guilty conscience. This Mary is one that comes to her decision to take lives not out of determination or ambition, but at a loss of options — and in a plot twist out of Shakespeare or the Greeks, at the urging of her dead mother Catalina (Irene Poole, who plays the same role in Martha Henry’s production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII at the festival, also in the Studio Theatre), who visits her daughter and urges her to “kill the pretenders.”

With this trick, the character of Mary elevates to become almost mythical — a visionary or a madwoman, depending on the narrator. Through Poole’s ice-cold performance, Hennig highlights themes of destiny and fate in a dramatic way that verges more on prophecy than on royal heritage, recalling Oedipus’s doom or Macbeth’s fateful run-in with the Weird Sisters. Savoini’s set and Kimberly Purtell’s lighting enhance those supernatural elements, with LED lighting along the set’s borders that quivers whenever a ghostly presence enters the stage, Catalina or Anne (also played by Hill, a sensuous schemer that’s as diabolical as Catalina is salty, both are painted with broad strokes in Mary’s mind). There’s also a tragedy in Mary’s abdomen pains, suggested initially as simply bad period cramps (and no, PMS doesn’t seem to stop her from being the boss), but will eventually lead to false pregnancies and her death from a reproductive illness.

But Hennig and Dilworth counter that darkness with a strong sense of humour running throughout, most often seen through Mary’s interactions with her aides Bassett (Beryl Bain), Simon (Gordon Patrick White) and Susan (Maria Vacratsis), a name that’s never not-funny when delivered by Taylor’s earnestness (“Susan, I need practical shoes.”). Even Poole’s stony demeanour gives way to humour, with her unsuccessful by well-intentioned attempts to be maternal when her only child feels ill, and Mary stumbles: “What’s the word? Lay? Lain? Laid?” And White’s overblown confidence as Mary’s only male adviser is punctured with his awkwardness about her dressing or undressing, a useful tool to skewer the patriarchal world Mary’s struggling against, sometimes poking fun and sometimes giving in from exhaustion.

After such a rich journey, Hennig only falters when trying to stick the ending — a time jump and shift in setting feels like a grasp at finding a conclusion to both Bess and Mary’s stories at once, but comes along too fast and too brief. It seems like the idea in Hennig’s mind is one she’s already said out loud, that this isn’t the end — for either queen, or for Hennig’s series.
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