THE last days of Katheryn Howard are the basis for Catherine’s Hiscock’s new play, directed with aplomb by Alex Pearson. All rather sad and misogynistic, but quite beautifully executed (if you know what I mean).
Showing at The Hope Theatre in London’s Islington – after a summer run at the Jack Studio Theatre across the river – it highlights the politicking of the royal court as a case is built against the young Katheryn (17 years old) so that Henry VIII can be shot of her. Even some of her ladies-in-waiting, confined with her until justice is done, turn against her in order to protect their backs and necks. Others, commendably, stay loyal to the very end.
Her ladies, all wearing contemporary clothing, are not a particularly pleasant bunch. Isabelle Baynton (Srabani Sen) is the head of them all – and her quest is merely one of self-preservation (to hell with Katheryn). Selfish to the core. Joan Bulmer (Francesca Anderson) snarls away like a Rottweiler while sleeping with anyone who takes her fancy (she is married). Unlike Katheryn, her sexual mores do not attract criticism or censure. A clever juxtaposition.
Only long standing friend Kit Tilney (Emmanuela Lia) and her closest attendant Jane Boleyn (Natalie Harper) remain faithful – in Jane’s case, paying a heavy price for doing so.
Hiscock is excellent as Katheryn. Slight, vulnerable and naïve. She battles valiantly against the slings and arrows that are fired against her as a case of adultery is relentlessly built against her. A case based on relationships with Thomas Culpeper (while married to Henry VIII), Francis Dereham (pre Henry) and Henry Maddox (a music teacher who molested her when she was a mere 13 year old). But she has no get out of jail card. Henry VIII wants her gone – and he succeeds.
The play flits back and forth in time, allowing the viewer to observe the growing friendship between Kit and Katheryn. The voices of Katheryn’s male inquisitors are played by the all-female cast. There are many poignant moments – for example, when Katheryn escapes from her confinement in a quest to speak to the king, and the night before her beheading when she rests her head on the executioner’s block.
Although it takes a while for the various pieces of the Katheryn Howard jigsaw to come together (not an issue for aficionados of Tudor history), Hiscock’s play is both fascinating and absorbing. Well written and in Hiscock’s case especially, superbly acted.