With no plot as such, just (shockingly) monologues, let’s go queen by queen: time to see who was paying attention in history class!
Jill Priest is spurned first wife ‘Cathy’ (Aragon). Some lovely details recontextualises her as a northern waitress. Priest’s progression from beloved wife to banished shadow is a triumph of acting, whilst her battle with conceiving a child brings the story into a very modern realm. Regrettably, the script downplays her religious devotion, without which it is hard to fully understand her character. This is not the last time history is sacrificed for salacious detail.
Amy Connery is sassy northern Irish ‘Annie’ (Boleyn). Reduced to the oversexualised ‘other woman’, the script leaves out much of Anne’s clear political capability, cast aside to focus on juicy personal detail. Something is lost in the process. Connery’s fall from grace is well crafted though, and her passion as a woman hell-bent on controlling her own life speaks to the core of what probably caused Anne’s downfall.
Lucy Crick’s performance as ‘Jane’ (Seymour) is one of the most effective. A health-obsessed but fragile yoga mum, she is naive and in love. The dramatic irony throughout her story is so thick you could walk on it. Although the death scene (not a spoiler surely?) is a little overdone, this is one of the few moments where Michael Bird’s otherwise static lighting switches from a spot to an atmospheric shadowy effect.
‘Anne’ (of Cleves) follows. Sarah Priddy’s Anne is an older woman internet dating, fudging the facts of her appearance and age. This is inspired, equally funny and heart-breaking. The drunk scene where she is “rejected” cleverly ties into a thread of violence against women.
Perhaps most emotional is Stephanie Jones’ ‘Katie’ (Howard); a girl of 17 forced into a relationship with an older man, bringing the reality of the abusive Henry into sharp focus. A scene where Jones is in a towel after being molested is utterly shocking, raising the unanswered question of why we keep telling the story of this man who he is a misogynistic, abusive, sexual predator?
Lastly, Anna Franklin is ‘Katherine’ (Parr), the shining beacon. Outliving Henry, she is cool, calm and collected. The line “being rich and about to die makes almost any man irresistible to a woman” captures her characterisation well. Franklin’s voice and manner are by far the most assured, and she dominates the space. Rarely do I approve of both directing and starring in a piece, but she proves that with great ability these two roles can coexist happily.
Undeniably, outstanding performances across the board carry the show. Yet Russell and Wafer’s attempt to pull these women out of their historical setting brings its own problems. In making these historical figures ‘real women’ depth is lost. The reality is far more complex, and what does not translate is the power that being queen bestowed; power barely comprehensible from a modern viewpoint.
Concerns aside, the stellar acting allows most of the queens’ stories to reverberate through time. Focusing on the brutality against women and reworking the history books is paramount.