“Mother’s Daughter”, currently playing at the Stratford Festival, is the third installment of playwright Kate Hennig’s Queenmaker series, in which she offers a closer and more substantive examination of various Tudor-era women connected to Henry VIII. In preparation of seeing “Mother’s Daughter”, which focuses on Mary I (England’s first queen regent, often referred to as “Bloody Mary”) I read the first two installments in Hennig’s series; “The Last Wife”, which focuses on Catherine Parr, and “The Virgin Trial”, which examines Elizabeth I and her involvement in a coup attempt against her younger brother, King Edward VI. Each play in this magnificent series is thoughtful and cutting in the ways it explores the humanity, motivations, and depth of these oft-overlooked historical women, and while “Mother’s Daughter” is ultimately my least favorite of the three plays, it’s still a gripping and intelligent piece of theatre that’s absolutely worth seeing.
In “Mother’s Daughter” Mary I (Shannon Taylor), daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon (Irene Poole), is pulled by the opposing forces of mercy and strength (or cruelty?), as well as her duties as both queen and sister as she scrambles to keep her kingdom, her crown, her family, and her line of succession in order. Upon the death of King Edward VI, thirty-eight-year-old Mary wrests the throne from Edward’s deemed heir. But Mary’s mother appears from the vaults of memory, and adamantly questions the motives of Mary’s cousin Jane (Andrea Rankin) and her half-sister Bess (Jessica B. Hill), despite Mary’s affection for them both. As the kingdom splits along Roman Catholic and Protestant lines, Mary walks a tight rope of squabbling ethics and politics, and is forced to make some tough decisions. Should she mimic the savagery often exercised by her father and start sending opponents—in this case, her own kin—to the guillotine? Should she scramble to find a husband who can give her a rightful heir, thus securing the line of succession and averting rebellion?
The minimalist set (just a table and chair) and production design leaves the narrative propulsion of “Mother’s Daughter” in the hands of its small, predominantly female cast; and propel the story they sure do. At the center of the story, Shannon Taylor gives a powerhouse performance as Mary, who is just as comfortable delivering quippy sarcasm and wit (Hennig wrote “Mother’s Daughter” in modern vernacular) as she is searing, tear-jerking monologues. Her Mary is relatable and familiar, presented as a flawed and imperfect woman doing her best to navigate the impossibly complex worlds of royalty, war, and religious conflict. Rather than being stuffy or aristocratic, Taylor’s Mary is funny and sharp, but also sweaty and confused and overwhelmed. She’s a queen whose every fiber screams, “What the hell am I doing here?!” rather than, “I deserve this, bow to me.”
Equally powerful is Irene Poole as the ghost (or memory? or ethereal manifestation?) of Mary’s mother Katherine of Aragon, who is constantly urging Mary to choose the crueler, more violent path, often against Mary’s better instincts. She balances her role as mother against her duty as a wartime consigliere, and does so with the presence and booming certainty that we would expect from one of the most famous Tudor queens, but also finds moments of delicacy and love. Like Mary, Poole’s Katherine is complex and endlessly interesting.
In possibly the most impressive acting performance, Jessica B. Hill doubles as both Mary’s sister Elizabeth (or “Bess”) and Bess’ mother Anne Boleyn. Hill’s Bess fluctuates between snarkiness and sincerity, fear and loyalty, leaving the audience to wonder if she’s truly capable of the conspiratorial plot that Catherine is determined she’s scheming, or if she’s just a concerned younger sister. In the flashback scenes she brings a cunning, sexual energy to Anne Boleyn that makes you double-take when realizing she was portraying Bess moments previously.
“Mother’s Daughter” is a powerful and important play about authority and humanity, mercy and love, and particularly about being a powerful woman. It gives nuance and depth to a character who’s mostly written-off by history as a savage tyrant, and while Mary is almost certainly not a hero or someone to be canonized, she was complicated and intensely human. Thanks to Hennig, audiences and readers have a more multi-dimensional idea of the ruler Mary may have been.
“Mother’s Daughter” is approximately two hours long with a twenty-minute intermission. It’s playing at Stratford’s Studio Theatre until October 13th. For tickets and more information, click here