Bahia Watson (2017 production). Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann.
Soulpepper presents Kate Hennig’s The Virgin Trial, directed by Alan Dilworth, assisted by Katrina Darychuk—opening last night at the Young Centre. The companion piece to The Last Wife, the play was originally commissioned and produced by the Stratford Festival in 2017, with the final installment of the trilogy, Mother’s Daughter, to premiere at Stratford in this coming May-October. A riveting and brilliantly orchestrated look at power, politics and the cunningly crafted image of a young queen in waiting, The Virgin Trial incorporates modern dress and language as it explores cat and mouse, life and death interrogations following a plot against the life of young King Edward VI. A teenaged Bess, who would go on to become Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen; and Thomas Seymour, who was married to Bess’s stepmother Catherine Parr, are at the centre of the investigation.
The nicely appointed interview room in the Tower, with its elegant table and chairs, crystal chandelier overhead (set and costume design by Yannik Larivée, lighting design by Kimberly Purtell), belies the minefield of questioning, manipulation and thinly veiled threats that subjects will be subjected to—not to mention the dark and treacherous confines of the plastic-curtained halls without. Enter Eleanor (Yanna McIntosh), a ruthless noblewoman on a mission, and the smooth-talking Lord Protector Ted (Nigel Bennett)—playing good cop to Eleanor’s bad cop—to question young Bess (Bahia Watson) over what she knows about Thom Seymour’s (Brad Hodder) alleged recent attempt on King Edward’s life.
As the stakes get higher, the interrogators dig deep to find dirt on Bess, real or imagined, in an attempt to manipulate her testimony, as well as public opinion of her; slut-shaming, leaking fake news, and playing on her own loyalties as well as those close to her to get the answers they want. Next in line to the throne—second if you ignore her half-sister Mary’s (Helen Knight) religion—Bess is highly suspect by association: her “traitor” “whore” mother Ann Boleyn and her suspected romantic ties to Thom, coupled with her outspoken, quick intelligence, make her a dangerous player in this game of thrones. The line of questioning turns to Bess’s possible involvement in the plot, pulling in her governess Ashley (Laura Condlln) and assistant Parry (André Morin), who both knew about and supported Thom’s romantic advances.
Outstanding performances from the ensemble in this intense, at times darkly funny and playful, tale of royal intrigue, machinations and a young woman’s growing sense of power. Watson is spellbinding as the complex, mercurial young Bess; a playful yet observant child wise beyond her years, Bess soaks up knowledge like a sponge and is able to manifest it into action with alarming speed and accuracy. On the brink of womanhood, her growing sense of power—both sexual and political—fascinates and excites her, the seeds of the fierce, savvy monarch who made history planted before our eyes.
McIntosh gives a gripping and intimidating performance as the stone cold, calculating Eleanor. Her menacing tone and bearing illustrate a particularly merciless variation of female badassery in this play, along with Knight’s delightfully wry, gives-zero-fucks Mary and Watson’s ambitious, rising future queen Bess. Bennett’s sleazy spin master Ted complements McIntosh’s Eleanor nicely; a master of image projection, and oozing false warmth and sincerity, while Ted’s methods are decidedly different, the desired outcome is the same. Hodder does a great balancing act with Thom’s likeable handsome rouge exterior and the lechery that lies beneath; a complex man whose alliances appear to shift with circumstance, one wonders what Thom’s true motives are.
Great supporting work from Condlln and Morin as Ashley and Parry—at times offering some much-needed comic relief; as Bess’s closest confidantes, Ashley and Parry are both loyal, supportive and a bit laissez faire with her. Perhaps their close proximity to celebrity, and a possible future queen, has clouded their better judgement, blinding them to what’s really going on behind the scenes and how they’re implicated in Bess’s actions.
Ambition, power and public image feature prominently. Underestimated and undervalued, Bess truly believes that she was meant for better things. She is not the innocent she appears to be; and there’s far more than meets the eye to this young woman whose secret heart is set upon the throne.
The Virgin Trial continues at the Young Centre until February 3, including a special matinée performance added on January 31 and a 7:00 performance added on February 3. Advance tickets available online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666 or 1-888-898-1188. Get on those advance bookings to avoid disappointment.
In the meantime, check out the trailer: