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'The Last Wife' Gives Modern Voice To Tudor Royalty

"The Last Wife" actresses Cashae Monya, Allison Spratt Pearce and Kylie Acuña in an undated photo.
Daren Scott
"The Last Wife" actresses Cashae Monya, Allison Spratt Pearce and Kylie Acuña in an undated photo.
'The Last Wife' Gives Modern Voice To Tudor Royalty
'The Last Wife' Gives Modern Voice To Tudor Royalty GUEST: Kate Hennig, playwright, "The Last Wife"

>> Television pans have had opportunity to see all kinds of information about King Henry VIII. We have experienced plenty of Tudor men engaged in lofty language and politics. What we do not know is what the women were doing besides getting their heads chopped off. A play running at Cygnet Theatre puts the spotlight on Catherine Parr. The place called the last wife. Joining me now is playwright Kate Hennig . As the last wife, Catherine Parr survived the death of King Henry. That is all people know about her. Apparently she was a brilliant and accomplished woman. >> I remember as a young teenager, watching historical dramas about the six wives. When it came to Catherine Parr, they portrayed her as an older woman. They portrayed her as a nurse and she nursed him through his last years. It turns out she was 31 and not 50. She was beautiful. The portraits in England are spectacular. She was the first woman to publish her own writing in her own name in the English language. >> That is amazing. >> How does Catherine Parr translate into a modern setting in your play? She is still Henry's wife and still with limited power of her own isn't she? >> John Fox wrote a martyr ologies. He wrote it after the death of these people. Comes -- it comes a removed history. He heightens things a bit what he described is the very special relationship between Catherine Parr and Henry VIII. Catherine Parr could talk to Henry VIII in a way that none of his other wives could. He would tolerate her opinion. I was fascinated by that. So were they or did he think of her as an equal? >> I pursue that idea. In our politics where we hope there is gender equality and I followed that through. Is very much about our own political time. >> History has not told us much except for Mr. Cox. -- Mr. Fox. How do you go about creating a character when you just have meager bits of information? >> That is what a playwright does. I am a dramatist. I make stuff up. There are very few documented facts. Actually there are tons of it but it is mostly political documentation. The women get very little airtime. A lot of that has to be made up. That is the great pleasure. For me as a woman, I want to know more about my history. I at least want to have stories about it. This gives that perspective. Especially for women, it is extremely relatable. >> To be clear, this play shows Catherine Byrne in modern dress and speaking in modern English. There is no lofty language. Several viewers have called this feminist revisionists history. >> That is fair. I am a feminist and I am revising history. I take no offense to that. I am a dramatist. I make stuff up. I want to make a good story. Rather than this being a historical play that is set in modern dress, I think of it is it is a contemporary play that is set in a historic context. I flip the lens a bit. These are people that are entirely relatable. In the play there is a dinner scene at the family dinner table. It is like any other family in North America. I will not give it away but all hell breaks loose at the end of the scene. >> What makes you want to take the story of the Tudor and bring it into a modern scene. >> It is because what is the power that they have when they are not at the top of the pyramid. I started looking at this in 2011. I was looking at tyrannical leaderships in North Africa and the Middle East. I thought all kinds of news dig on the political situations. I thought all of these men. I just wondered, where were the women? I also wondered what kind of power they have in the bedroom and at the dining table over those men. What kind of influence. Also I wondered how those men relate to their daughters. What is the relationship that happens there? What is the result of those relationships on those daughters? >> In the play we see that Catherine Parr is like a mother to wean Elizabeth I -- queen Elizabeth the first. >> The first two raining queens were under her care and in this play. >> Considering the current political and cultural climate, is the way the play is resonating with audiences different now than it was when it first came out a few years ago? >> There was a remount of the original production. This was in Toronto last January. I sat in the house during a preview and the people behind me had no idea who I was. I could hear them if the interview looking up when the play was written. They were sure it was written about Donald Trump. The funny thing was, when they found out it wasn't, they said she was a lucky playwright for this to happen. It makes it on the nose politically now. I think that is interesting. >> The last wife is running through February 11 at Cygnet Theatre. Kate Hennig will field questions from the audience after this Friday's performance. Thank you very much. >> Thank you Maureen.

Public television fans have seen a lot of different versions of Henry VIII. TV series from "The Six Wives of King Henry" to "Wolf Hall" have shown plenty of Tudor men engaging in lofty language and, literally, cut-throat politics. But what we know less about is what the women were thinking.

"The Last Wife," making its West Coast debut at Cygnet Theater, puts the spotlight on Henry's sixth wife, Katherine Parr, in a contemporary, re-imagined history of the court. Playwright Kate Hennig said she was inspired by early coverage of the Arab Spring and the male leaders who were in danger of losing their power.

"It got me interested in the relationships between those men and their wives were like," Hennig said. "What is the power that happens in the bedroom and in the dining room table? What are the relationships that those kinds of men have with their daughters? I didn’t think I could write about the Arab Spring, but I thought I could write about Henry VIII."


The play premiered in 2015 but has taken on a different meaning since the 2016 election. A theater in Chicago had scheduled a run during the campaign season and Hennig heard reports from actors that Henry VIII got booed on the day President Trump was elected.

"It was fascinating to watch that ride, going from the hope of having female leadership to the giving in to the status quo," she said.

The show runs in San Diego through Feb. 11.

Hennig joins KPBS Midday Edition on Thursday with more on what the "The Last Wife" says about modern women seeking power.