To say that Alberta Theatre Projects’ presentation of The Virgin Trial by Kate Hennig is charged is an understatement. As a follow up to The Last Wife, this play thrusts Elizabeth (Bess) front and centre. She is the centre of a trial to uncover her involvement with a plan to abduct Edward the current King, attempted by Thomas Seymour. The abduction attempt is historically accurate as is some of the events referred to in the production. The trial and the events that follow are all imagined and it’s an imaginary path worth taking. The play takes delight in the grey area, the line of whether Elizabeth is innocent or cunning. If she was taking advantage or taken advantage of. The push and pull, cat and mouse drama of the production is dynamic and keeps the audience involved all the way through.
The Virgin Trial tells of Bess (Emma Houghton) who is being interrogated but not formally charged yet for high treason. Her stepfather Thomas Seymour (Haysam Kadri) broke into her half brother and now King Edward’s apartment and shot the guard dog. Ted Seymour (Nigel Shawn Williams), the Lord Protector is trying to get to the bottom of what conspired between Bess and Thom and he is doing this coupled with his ‘bad cop’ Eleanor (Sarah Orenstein). Also withstanding questioning and torture are Ashley, (Jamie Konchak) Bess’s Governess and accomplice Parry (Conrad Belau). Thrown into the mix both as a confident and the only somewhat true guardian role to Bess is Mary (Helen Knight) to everyone’s delight, as Mary’s sarcasm and quick whit are ever present. Mary is still the character favourite, fresh and furious from her debut in the prequel.
There are many things at play in The Virgin Trial. There is the fact that Bess is still only a 15 year old girl and Thomas is 40 and their dynamic is depicted as borderline child abuse while also illustrating that Bess might just be playing with fire. She might know exactly what she is doing, but there are moments in the play where the fact that she doesn’t have a responsible adult around to send her to her room is very apparent. She wields her sexuality like a sword at times, but it also threatens to engulf her.
Hennig’s sharp writing is ever present in this play with Parry and Mary having laugh out loud lines. Williams shows his diversity playing a warm friend to Bess and turning on her when he doesn’t get what he wants. Kadri keeps Thom’s cards close to his chest, sometimes showing genuine affection for Bess but then also we see glimpses of his appetite for power. Knight’s portrayal of Mary is still worthy of adoration and you can’t help but hate Orenstein, regardless of whether you think Bess is innocent or not.
Alberta Theatre Projects hasn’t set up a thrust stage in 5 years, and the configuration lends well to the telling of The Virgin Trials. Scott Reid’s set design allows the flash backs to take place on the closer stage, as the current trial scene freezes in the back stage. He also utilizes design elements that were present in The Last Wife such as the old style portraits of the Kings and Queens of the time. David Fraser’s lighting design helps to follow the action on stage and Chad Blain’s sound design builds the tension. The only design element that didn’t work so well was the projection design showing Thom shooting the dog. It might have been more effective if that action took place off stage.
Director Glynis Leyshon keeps the production really tight, making sure to not stray to make the decision exactly for the audience regarding nature or nurture. The production is filled with drama and tension with dynamic characters. It’s an intriguing imagining of the last Tudor.
Alberta Theatre Projects’ presentation of The Virgin Trial runs September 29. More information is available online.
Photo: (l to r) Jamie Konchak, Conrad Belau, Emma Houghton and Hellen Knight
Credit: Benjamin Laird Art & Photos