THE BASICS: MOTHER’S DAUGHTER, the world premiere of a play by Kate Hennig about the first queen of England, directed by Alan Dilworth, commissioned by the Stratford Festival, in their venue for new plays, the “Studio Theatre,” in repertory with four other plays at that venue, and a dozen plays and musicals overall this summer in Stratford, Ontario. (800-567-1600) www.stratfordfestival.ca Note: MOTHER’S DAUGHTER, a no-holds barred conversation between the ghost of Catherine of Aragon and her daughter “Bloody Mary” comes with an Audience Alert: “This play contains coarse adult language and deals with mature themes. It is generally unsuitable for most children and some younger teens.” Runtime: 2 hours and 9 minutes with one 20-minute intermission
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: We meet England’s first queen, Queen Mary I, aka “Mary Tudor” (or later “Bloody Mary”) played with extraordinary likeability by Shannon Taylor as the daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, a Catholic. Mom is called “Catalina” and played here with wonderful world weariness and more than a touch of disdain by Irene Poole who appears as a ghost to counsel her daughter, Mary, and that goes about as well as most “mother giving advice to daughter” chats. Catalina has an edge to her as she urges Mary to be less understanding and more, well…. bloody!
Meanwhile, Mary is dealing with some serious royal stuff, including the added pressure of being the first female head of state, and in addition having to decide whether England will revert to Catholicism. She deals with challengers for her throne, Lady Jane Grey (beheaded in the Tower of London), and then her half-sister, Elizabeth, (not beheaded in the Tower) who, as it happened, (SPOILER ALERT) assumed the throne after Mary died at the age of forty-two. This play, like the holiday “Festivus” is a time to air grievances. Catalina has come back to complain about that little homewrecker, Anne Boleyn. Boleyn herself is miffed because not only has Henry VIII turned his attentions to Jane Seymour but he also has Anne’s head cut off. Ouch! And along the way, Mary has a few royal rows with Anne Boleyn’s daughter, her half-sister Elizabeth (“Bess”), still alive and a potential threat (both Anne and Bess played by Jessica B. Hill) With snappy, and snippy mother-daughter and sister-to-sister dialogue, it’s a little like an all-female WEST WING, but set in London in the mid-1500s.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Since it’s a two-and-a-half-hour (at least) drive to Stratford, as opposed to under an hour to Niagara-on-the-Lake’s Shaw Festival, I’ll assume that more readers will have Shaw experience, so let’s draw some parallels between the Shaw and Stratford, and there are many more than just both being in Canada. First off, both Shaw and Stratford are “repertory” festivals, meaning that the same plays are offered if not all season, at least for several months, often with a day or two break in between, and a core of actors who will appear in two or even three different productions running concurrently, often in wildly contrasting roles. Over time, you’ll develop some favorites among the actors who come back season after season.
But odds are excellent that you’ll enjoy anything you see at either festival. Of course, at the Shaw, there is still some allegiance to the plays of G.B. Shaw and his contemporaries, although these days the connecting thread seems to be more “plays about issues that would interest Shaw.” At the Stratford, only three of the twelve plays this year are by Shakespeare. But, as mentioned, with most “destination” festivals, anything you end up getting tickets for will be a first-rate production.
Like the Shaw, Stratford has their large “Festival” theater often used for popular Shakespeare plays such as this year’s OTHELLO and THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. And, Stratford also has a comfortable feeling older style proscenium theater called The Avon (a little like the Royal George at Shaw) and both have a “black box” theater for edgier plays, called the “Studio Theatre” in both venues. Stratford also had, and will again in 2020 after a complete rebuild, the “Tom Patterson” theater, a larger venue for plays by such as Beckett or Chekhov or Ibsen, and when that’s built, I’m sure that Stratford’s “Studio” will revert to even more experimental plays with shorter runs. And don’t forget all of the extra talks, and activities, and tours, and readings, and music, and chances to pull back the curtain on plays offered at these festivals.
And both festivals are run by Artistic Directors with a vision. At the Shaw, Tim Carroll writes that a good play asks the question “What would you do?” which “inspires us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes….” At Stratford, Antoni Cimolino reminds us that “we need to push beyond the limits of our past lives… Will our former identity be a foundation or a prison?”
But wait, there’s one more parallel. In August, 2017, the playwright, Kate Hennig, became the Associate Artistic director of the Shaw Festival (and will be directing HOLIDAY INN for the Shaw winter season in 2019).
And that brings us to Hennig’s play, MOTHER’S DAUGHTER, which is the third in a trilogy, but you don’t need to have seen the previous two. Not at all. You don’t even have to know much about the world of Henry VIII, although in the program (access it here) you are given excellent articles along with a readable, two-page “Tudor Timeline.” Oh my gosh, another parallel – both the Shaw Festival and the Stratford Festival make all of their programs (think “Playbills”) available online, for free, to read before you go. Excerpting from Hennig’s piece “A Change in Appearance” printed in the program, Hennig seems to be taking up Cimolino’s challenge (“Will our former identity be a foundation or a prison?”) when she writes:
“It has been easy for history to vilify her [Mary I] across the ages; to demonize her as a religious fundamentalist who is the enemy of humanism and reason; the enemy of Gloriana, the Virgin Queen [Elizabeth I].” But, as it turns out, there were reasons that she did what she did and said what she said. So, just as Broadway’s Lyn Manuel Miranda set about to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton, Hennig was on a mission herself.
“Mary has been written into history as the bad guy. Now, I’m not saying she’s a good guy. Mary’s just human. Or at least in my plays I am contemplating her humanity. …Mary’s life was surrounded by bitter disappointment. …At the same time, Mary was a woman who took on a job that no woman had ever taken on before; she wore her father’s robes at her coronation because no robes had ever been made for a woman; she had a bill passed through Parliament that allowed women who wore the crown to be equal in power to their male counterparts….
Mary had balls.
So, in helping Mary to appear, I want the word ‘bloody’ to disappear. Even if I know that Mary is not the pure white dove, I also know that appearance and reality are married in complex and inexplicable ways.”
Now we all know that authors on a mission to spread “truth” can sometimes be more focused on the message than the medium, and their plays suffer. That’s not the case here. MOTHER’S DAUGHTER is engaging from the start, and it’s funny, and had the audience buzzing at intermission, always a good sign.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!