Ladies In Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII, Bread & Roses Theatre - Review

What do you think of when the name of Henry Tudor (Henry VIII) is mentioned? The Reformation and the closing down of monasteries? Or a rather stout man who instigated in 'the divine right of kings' and used this 'status' to cover a multitude of sins? Chances are, any recollection of these facts are tangential to recalling Henry's relationship with his six wives and the rhyme that's associated with them: Divorced, beheaded, died. Divorced, beheaded, survived.

Playwright James Cougar Canfield has hit upon the idea of allowing Henry's spouses have their say on past events in Ladies in Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII. Set in the afterlife, each wife takes it in turn to scrutinise their respective relationship with Henry (some more harmoniously than others), the outcome of which will have everlasting consequences for the once-monarch.

The play could very easily have been like Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, played for laughs with Henry juggling the taunts of six wives instead of two. However the tone of  Ladies in Waiting is closer to James Goldman's The Lion In Winter and Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon, with its modern take on dysfunctional royal marital relationships and its one-on-one format.

When the wives aren't in physical proximity to Henry onstage, they sit apart from him near the audience in darkness, disembodied voices with many questions that demand answers. Canfield himself plays Henry, though the directorial duties fall to Mitchell Glass, assisted by Sean O'Brien.

The wives in question are all very different from each other in terms of personality and circumstances. The one thing they have in common though is now they are the ones who will ultimately decide if Henry passes on from this purgatory, the gravest stakes for Henry if he isn't reconciled with them all... The way the marriage originally ended for each of the wives gives a clue as to how the cross-examinations pan out over the course of the evening.

While all the actors put in admirable performances, the writing truly comes alive when Henry's debating with the wives with more assertive personalities come to the fore. It is then that the audience truly feels the lasting effects of Henry's actions on these historical figures, as well as hearing their accomplishments that history often neglects to mention.

In some ways Henry was very much a man of his time regarding his attitude towards women, but even by the unenlightened standards of centuries ago, the play shows his general disdainful attitude and use of double standards, simply because he was the king. The play does highlight Henry's 'love' for Jane Seymour, but as the true nature of his love is thrown into doubt, it is little wonder his other marriages suffered. If a man doesn't respect and love women in general, what hope is there for his own marriage?

The play finishes in the only way it could, proving for better or for worse that the only person who can decide Henry's fate is himself.

So what was Henry's legacy? What will he be remembered for? By accident or design, it is the women in his life that defined Henry and shaped Britain's political future.

What would have been interesting is to have all six wives gathered together like the banquet scene in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, and let them express their thoughts and feelings about Henry and their respective marriages with each other. Now that would be a dinner conversation to die for.

© Michael Davis 2016

Ladies In Waiting runs at Bread & Roses Theatre until 2nd April 2016 and at the Edinburgh Festival in August.

•    Catherine of Aragon… Hilary Kelman
•    Anne Boleyn… Wendy Kenney
•    Jane Seymour… Jessica McClellan
•    Anne of Cleves… Kaitlin Gould
•    Catherine Howard… Margaret Gorrell
•    Katherine Parr… Kimberly Hoffman
•    Henry VIII… James Cougar Canfield

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