The Tudors are getting a lot of play in popular culture these days. Films galore have been made about the various people alive during Henry VIII’s reign, and TV series have caught on, too, with Showtime’s “The Tudors” running from 2007-2010 and BBC’s “Wolf Hall,” based on Hilary Mantel’s novel, debuting last year. Alison Wier published another Tudor-era biography featuring the Wolf Hall view of the Tudors (a la Cromwell), which has snowballed on the legitimate stage. In short, the Tudors are everywhere—including Thalian Hall’s Ruth and Bucky Stein Theatre. Currently, William Gregory’s biopic about Mary Tudor, Henry VIII’s oldest surviving child, is showing the next two weekends.
Dubbed “The First Child of Divorce”—at least the most high profile one in the western world—Princess Mary (Hannah Elizabeth Smith) is introduced at the dissolution of marriage between her parents, Henry VIII (Nick Battiste) and Catherine. On its heels: the rise of Anne Boleyn (Alissa Fetherolf) and Henry’s love affair. For the most part, the story examines life from the perspective of Mary and how her parents’ actions impact her at a highly impressionable time of adolescence. We watch her transition from a fairly happy, spoiled royal child to an angry, inconsolable, miserable, mistreated pawn in a battle of wills and love, with little love left for her. The focus of the script is on Mary, and as such, the cast is almost entirely female, with her father swooping in periodically to hand down edicts. It’s a good reflection about the idea of power and maneuvering behind the throne. How would women have handled their enforced status?
Surrounding Mary are Lady Margaret Pole (Debra Gillingham), her governess; Lady Anne Shelton (Christy Grantham), cousin of Anne Boleyn, who’s later in charge of the household of the royal children; and Lady Jane Seymour (Courtney Poland), the ill-fated third wife of Henry VIII and mother to Edward VI. Aside from the obvious choice relating to Mary’s surroundings, the script is terribly underwritten. Very little interest plays into the intrigues of the Tudor age, which makes the time and players so enduringly fascinating. Basically, Henry has one refrain: the desire for a son. In real life, he had a living, acknowledged, illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy, with Bessie Blount—his longtime mistress. “Fitzroy” was a surname frequently given to illegitimate royal children to designate them as offspring of the king. It’s a reference from Shakespeare’s “Henry V,” as the king visits campfires in disguise and gives his name as Fitzroy, to which the reply is, he must be of the Welsh troops—a nice little play on the “Prince of Wales” title. It was openly acknowledged at court and given lands and titles. Yet, the script continues with this monomaniacal idea of Henry needing a son.
As well, the play barely touches on the relentless, inexorable tide of the Protestant reformation that took place during the time; Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon was the tipping point of the scale. This left a jarring and shocking imprint on Princess Mary—one of history’s great, ardent Catholic crusaders. It’s what led to her burning hundreds of people at the stake for dissenting religious views when she became the first Queen of England (a.k.a. “Bloody Mary”). Though we see her constantly praying and watch her free-spirit degrading into loathsome contempt, the script seems to confine most of Mary’s struggles to the hurt of her parent’s divorce. Perhaps that is what it should be, because a parent-child relationship is so primal and can color everything in life. Perhaps desires 500 years later miss the point and all of this really is a scream in the night for parental love. As a study on willful refusal of communication between generations and the ability to hurt the ones we love the most, the script succeeds.
For all the historical nitpicking I could do about the playwright’s choices, the performances really captivate. When Smith and Gillingham find themselves forcibly separated for the first time in Mary’s memory, their parting had both my theatre companion and me wiping away tears by the end of Act One. Smith’s portrayal makes the audience truly feel the effects of a forced ending of Mary’s last shred of consistency and unconditional love. It’s not just shocking but the real break in her sense of self and the world. Gillingham’s rendition of a surrogate mother’s love is all-encompassing and tempered with a need to teach self-preservation and dignity in the face of malice. Smith and Gillingham are powerful and beautiful together; they radiate from the stage. Their microcosm becomes an analogy for the treatment of women across the age.
Grantham’s Lady Shelton is given far less to work with in the script. She manages to make a part written to be little more than a schemer who delivers information into a fully functional character. Instead of hating Lady Shelton (or at least being incredibly bored by her), Grantham turns her into a sympathetic character, who’s trying to smooth the rough waves of difficult times to keep things moving forward. That she can portray the strained relationship of Mary and Shelton with any level of empathy is incredible. But Grantham frequently surprises onstage, and if anyone could find a human in this writing, it would be her.
In the midst of it all is the odd and bizarrely sweet juxtaposition of Poland’s Lady Jane Seymour. She swings between a breath of fresh air and an empty-headed irritation. Poland’s rendition is probably not unlike real-life Seymour from most accounts: sweet but docile and dumb. One can imagine such compliance was likely a welcoming change of pace after the most heated and well-publicized divorce, followed by an equally high-octane execution of the king’s second wife. A little calm can go a long way in life. Poland’s sweetness commends her to the audience and makes her a welcome dichotomy to the harshness many other characters exude.
In what one can suppose is a nod to the Bard, the supporting characters are given much more funny material to work with than the main characters. Marie Chonko, Brandi Laney and Tamica Katzman cycle through as an assortment of washer women, a wet nurse (Laney) and a midwife (Chonko). For all the regal restraint of the upper classes, these actresses provide much-needed humanity and comedic relief.
Visually, the space presents interesting challenges that the design team tackles with verve. The costuming, especially, is quite stunning, with many pieces borrowed from Playmakers Repertory in Chapel Hill, courtesy of Jean Marie Griffin. Troy Rudeseal has created several strategic set pieces that convey the sense of Tudor England, which combine with projections of art of the time—primarily tapestry work and stained-glass windows. It helps set the time and place for each scene in a stimulating sense. The design aesthetic, paired wih great performances, make “Mary Tudor” fulfilling. Truly, the cast wrenches emotions from these constricted lives that compel.