Mothers, daughters & the nature of power & leadership in the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter

Shannon Taylor & Fiona Byrne. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Soulpepper brings the Stratford Festival production of the final installment of Kate Hennig’s remarkable trilogy—exploring the Tudor period from the perspectives of its most famous and powerful women—to the Young Centre with the electric, razor-sharp Mother’s Daughter, directed by Alan Dilworth. Mary Tudor (aka Bloody Mary), who become the first female monarch of England, struggles with both inner and outer conflict—living in the shadow of her formidable, beloved mother Catalina (Catherine of Aragon), and up against her popular, cunning sister Bess (Elizabeth I) and young, naive cousin Lady Jane Grey to gain and maintain the crown during a great period of upheaval and uncertainty following her brother Edward’s death. Exploring mother/daughter relationships, and the nature of leadership and power, it’s an intensely compelling portrait of trust, alliance, betrayal and grit.

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Shannon Taylor & Andrea Rankin. Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Teenaged King Edward VI has died, and has disinherited his sisters Mary (Shannon Taylor) and Bess (Jessica B. Hill), and—guided by John Dudley—named their 16-year-old cousin Lady Jane Grey (Andrea Rankin) as his successor; Jane just happens to be Dudley’s daughter-in-law and claims to have no desire for the crown. Bess and Mary are having none of it, and a three-way battle for the throne ensues, with nobles and common folk alike taking sides and declaring loyalties. Initially refusing to use violent means to get what she wants, Mary chooses to use her voice and the power of reason as a means to appeal to and win over her adversaries.

With early confrontations going her way, Mary wins the crown—and begins the hard work of strategizing her reign with the assistance of personal advisors Bassett (Beryl Bain) and Susan (Maria Vacratsis), with diplomat Simon (Gordon Patrick White) guiding her through protocol and procedure. Also in Mary’s corner is her deceased mother Catalina (Fiona Byrne), who—through Mary’s memory and inner voice—appears, urging a decisive, iron grip approach, particularly when it comes to dealing with adversaries and restoring the Catholic faith to England. Added to the mix in Mary’s deliberations is Catalina’s nemesis Anne Boleyn (Hill), Bess’s mother, who wielded power in her own visceral way, in direct opposition to Catalina (and Mary’s) more cerebral approach. And throughout all the fireworks and debates between her various advisors, Mary grapples with her own sense of self-doubt and confidence as she strives to come to terms with her newly acquired power and responsibility. All the while, dealing with physical pain, Mary clutches her lower abdomen throughout—highlighting the pressures of producing an heir in her late 30s, and foreshadowing the (likely) ovarian or uterine cancer that contributed to her death at 42 during a flu epidemic.

Stunning performances from this largely female cast. Taylor does an outstanding job with Mary’s complexity and inner conflict; gutsy, determined and ambitious, Mary wants to be a moderate ruler, but finds she must steal herself to best confront personal and national threats. Living in the shadow of her mother Catalina, Mary is also both haunted and dogged by an extremely complicated mother/daughter relationship; both longing for love and approval while fighting Catalina’s harsh judgment, and determined to do things her own way even as she navigates her own second guessing and conflicting advice from counsellors. Byrne is an imposing, regal presence as the imperious Catalina; constantly pushing Mary to be the best monarch she can be, Catalina is laser-focused and brutally honest—holding no punches as she advises her daughter.

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Shannon Taylor & Jessica B. Hill (as Anne). Set & costume design by Lorenzo Savoini. Lighting design by Kimberly Purtell. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

Hill’s Bess exudes a cock-sure confidence and comfort in her own skin that Mary struggles to possess; exceedingly cunning and at ease with her power, Bess knows without a shadow of a doubt that she was meant to rule. Hill brings a fierce sensuality to the self-possessed Anne, making it easy to see the source of Bess’s passion and fire. Rankin’s sweet, naïve Jane stands in stark contrast to the ambitious Mary and Bess; a seeming innocent who professes no desire for the crown, Jane has been groomed for the throne—by a third mother figure who we don’t see here—and finds she must admit that maybe she does really want it after all.

Bain’s edgy, young spin master Bassett and Vacratsis’ measured, cautious veteran advisor Susan serve as perfect foils for each other—with Bassett representing Mary’s fight response and Susan the flight response. Rounding out Mary’s official council is the prim and proper diplomat Simon, who White infuses with a deadpan, stern schoolteacher-like countenance; the result is sometimes comic, but Simon also stands in for the male perspective here. Downplaying Mary, Bassett and Susan’s debates as “woman’s chatter”, Simon is a most reluctant and skeptical member of Mary’s inner circle. There is no precedent for a female monarch—and, like many men and even some women, Simon highly doubts that a woman is fit to rule.

The action is nicely supported by Lorenzo Savoini’s sharp, minimalistic set and stunning costumes, which combine a sense of the period with that of the 21st century; and complemented by Kimberly Purtell’s startling, edgy lighting design.

Winning hearts and minds, and reconciling the inner struggle between the kind of ruler one wants to be and the kind of ruler one needs to be. Difficult times require difficult decisions—and those in power must also do battle within themselves, even going against their own nature, to be the kind of leader they are required to be.

Mother’s Daughter continues at the Young Centre and must close on February 9; 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:

 

 

Power, identity & politics: Women come out from behind the men in the potent, thoughtful Portia’s Julius Caesar

Nikki Duval & Christine Horne. Set & costume design by Rachel Forbes. Lighting design by Jareth Li. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

 

Shakespeare’s women continue to take centre stage this summer—this time, with Shakespeare in the Ruff’s production of AD Kaitlyn Riordan’s Portia’s Julius Caesar, a potent and thoughtful adaptation of Julius Caesar from the point of view of the women in this story. The sharply wrought script weaves the text woven from 17 Shakespeare plays, four sonnets and a poem with new dialogue—and the women behind the men come to the fore as they wrestle with their own issues of identity, power and justice. Directed by Eva Barrie, Portia’s Julius Caesar is currently running outdoors in Toronto’s Withrow Park.

While all of Rome celebrates Caesar’s (Jeff Yung) triumphant return from a successful campaign against the sons of Pompey, his wife Calpurnia (Nikki Duval) confides in her bosom friend Portia, wife to Brutus (Christine Horne), regarding her concerns over their lack of an heir and Caesar’s relationship with the legendary Cleopatra, who she fears may usurp her. Nursing a newborn son herself, Portia is supportive and optimistic for her friend’s chances of bearing a child; but soon finds herself uneasy in her own marriage as Brutus (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) becomes increasingly distant and absent from their home.

Meanwhile, some in Rome are troubled by Caesar’s desire for a crown, which he hides with false humility; and there are those who fear that the republic may become a monarchy ruled by a boisterous, boasting tyrant. Among these are Servilia (Deborah Drakeford), Brutus’s imperious power-brokering mother and Cassius (Kwaku Okyere), Brutus’s friend—who both fan his deep concerns over Caesar’s popularity and hunger for power. Choosing his love of Rome over his love of Caesar, Brutus joins Cassius and a group of like-minded conspirators in a deadly plan to put a stop to Caesar’s rise to power. Hiding in the shadows to learn what is afoot, Portia catches wind of the plan; now faced with wanting to warn her friend Calpurnia but not betray her husband, she goes to Calpurnia with a story of a dream of Caesar’s bloody statue. Coupled with the Soothsayer’s (Tahirih Vejdani) recent warning, Calpurnia attempts to stop Caesar from going to the Senate on that fateful day—even after Brutus has persuaded him to do so—but fails to convince.

The actions that follow create a heartbreaking rift between Calpurnia and Portia, and make for additional tragedy in this tale of power, propaganda and loyalty. Portia fears for her life and that of her son when Marc Antony (Giovanni Spina) turns the people against Brutus, Cassius and their fellow assassins. Returning home to find Brutus gone, Portia learns that Servilia has secreted their son away to keep him safe. But how safe can anyone be in these chaotic, bloody times? In the end, the living are left to mourn their dead—and judge themselves for their actions in the outcome.

Remarkable work from Duval and Horne as Calpurnia and Portia; friends of their own accord, with a relationship separate from that of their husbands, these women truly love, nurture and support each other. Duval gives a moving performance as Calpurnia; an intelligent woman, well aware of her husband’s station and rise to power, Calpurnia beats herself up for not having children and blames herself for his womanizing. And seeing her friend nurse her baby makes Calpurnia want a child even more. Horne deftly mines Portia’s internal conflict as a contented, happy mother and supportive wife and friend whose reach only goes so far. Portia simply can’t wait on the sidelines when she knows that something serious is afoot with Brutus—and her insistence that he confide in her comes from a genuine desire to help. Longing to not only do their duty, but be real, invested partners to their husbands, Calpurnia and Portia can only respond as events emerge—and do what they believe is right under the circumstances. Drakeford gives a striking performance as the sharp-witted, intimidating yet vulnerable Servilia. Unable to wield direct political power herself, Servilia employs what influence she has to persuade individuals and manage events; and with no female role models at the time, she appears to model her behaviour after that of powerful men—perhaps finding herself at odds with her natural instincts.

The outstanding ensemble also includes a Young Ruffian Chorus (Troy Sarju, Sienna Singh and Jahnelle Jones-Williams); and the male actors also portray the various washerwomen—as women and slaves, they represent the lowest among the 99% in Rome. Okyere’s fiery, volatile, hasty Cassius is the perfect foil to Sobretodo’s cool, diplomatic, calculating Brutus. Spina does a great job balancing Antony’s fired-up warrior and eloquent orator; and, in addition to the enigmatic Soothsayer, Vejdani gives us a playful and seductive Casca, a Roman courtesan in this adaptation whose part in the plot includes distracting Antony from the impending plot against Caesar.

Portia’s Julius Caesar continues at Withrow Park (in the space just south of the washrooms) until September 3, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday (no show on August 27, but there will be a special Labour Day performance on Sept 3); the show runs 110 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets are PWYC at the venue (cash only: $20 suggested); advance tickets available online for $20 (regular) or $30 (includes camp chair rental).

Bring a blanket, beach towel or chair; bug spray also recommended. Concerned about the possible impact of weather conditions on a performance? Keep an eye out on Shakespeare in the Ruff’s Twitter feed or Facebook page for updates and cancellations.

In the meantime, check out this insightful and revealing Toronto Star piece by Carly Maga about the show, including an interview with AD/playwright Kaitlyn Riordan.