Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife is a compelling exploration of family, sex and power. Blending historical and contemporary concerns, The Belfry’s latest offering is intense and moving.

The Last Wife, which debuted last year at Stratford, decentres the infamously abusive Henry VIII (Oliver Becker), instead giving us the story of Katherine Parr (Celine Stubel), the only wife of his six to outlive him.

Hennig writes Katherine as a proto-feminist, passionate about educating Henry’s daughters in the ways of government, successfully convincing him to reinstate them in the line of succession. Katherine risks the wrath of her husband and the displeasure of his council in running her “school for queens,” as Mary (Anie Richer) disparagingly puts it.

As Katherine, Stubel is maternal, aggressive and vulnerable all while keeping her wits. Her marriage to Henry begins with coercion and persists with threats of violence and death. She is his match or even his superior in intelligence – while Henry is attracted to her brains, his desire for control puts her in constant danger whenever she asserts herself. Becker’s Henry is an omnipotent, autocratic Falstaff, at turns funny and horrific, a man still feral and brutal despite his age and injury.

Mary, whose reign will have her remembered as Bloody Mary, is played with delicious venom by Richer. Mahalia Golnosh Tahririha as Bess, the future Queen Elizabeth I, gives an unexpectedly bubbly performance as her character develops wisdom, a fresh look at one of England’s longest reigning monarchs. The ill-fated Edward is played sweetly by Ellis James Frank. Thomas Seymour, a nobleman who serves multiple plot purposes, is given vitality by Sean Baek.

Production design is sumptuous though simple. Katherine dresses much like England’s current Princess Kate, while young Edward wears the sweaters and shorts of boys in modern manor houses. Mary’s costume, reminiscent of a novice nun, is also a highlight. Jewels are used to signify royal position. The set is clean and effective (Shannon Lea Doyle), brought to life by Martin Conboy’s lush, emotive lighting.

Trigger warning for audience members: The Last Wife contains sexual and domestic violence. While the scenes are handled with respect and compassion by the playwright and director Esther Jun, the characters use Katherine’s traumatic past against her, and Henry’s on stage abuse of his wife and children is physical and verbal. Viewers should be prepared for violence against women both in dialogue and in scene. There is also strong language and brief nudity. Though the cruelty is difficult to watch, the play retains humour and light as well as darkness.

The Bottom Line

The Last Wife is an excellent production of a clever contemporary work, its protagonist worth the nearly two and half hour stage time.