Brockley Jack Studio Theatre – until 3 August 2019
Reviewed by Catherine Françoise
Katheryn Howard was Queen of England from 1540 until 1541 and is well known as the fifth wife of Henry VIII.
She was beheaded at the Tower of London on the 15th February 1542 aged just 17 and this play chillingly suggests her body was covered in lime to leave ‘no trace’. Certainly no trace of her body has ever been found.
A gruesome and upsetting tale indeed and the subject of an interesting, unsettling new play by Catherine Hiscock.
The spelling of the title name Katheryn, comes from one surviving signature on the only surviving letter written by herself where she called herself ‘Katheryn’. But other spellings also still exist including ‘Catherine’ and ‘Kathryn’ and so it is very hard to say which spelling is the original one.
The recent interest and popularity of Henry’s 6 wives because of SIX the Musical perhaps now give other theatrical endeavours an added gravitas though this play is rather less ‘entertaining’ and rather more intense, thought provoking and disturbing. It is quite something to realise just how young this girl was when ~ around 11 or 12 years old ~ she was first molested by her 36 year old music teacher Henry Mannox. She was then pursued and she alleged, repeatedly raped aged14/15 by courtier Francis Dereham who said he was in love with Katheryn and wanted to marry her.
Who knows the truth? Only one letter written by Katheryn survives to (unfortunately) Henry’s favourite male courtier, Thomas Culpeper, Katheryn had considered marrying Culpeper during her time as a maid-of-honour to Anne of Cleves, and she was clearly extremely fond of him though she was adamant to the end that she had not betrayed Henry for him. But the accusations made were essential to manipulate her ultimate downfall and free the King from her.
It is to Hiscock’s credit that she not only has written this play but also plays her (differently spelt) namesake. There is an intensity, desperation and depth to her portrayal of young Katheryn. Hiscock’s play is set in the tower where the 17 year old Katheryn dreads and awaits her fate. I found this genuinely upsetting. It is recorded that Archbishop Cranmer when sent to question her, described the teenager as frantic and incoherent saying, “I found her in such lamentation and heaviness as I never saw no creature, so that it would have pitied any man’s heart to have looked upon her.” He ordered the guards to remove any objects that she might use to commit suicide.
Little wonder! She must have been utterly terrified. As her female companions tell what has been said and the accusations against her she retells from her own perspective. It is clear she was groomed and was led into sexual activity by older men (and women) at court. She is genuinely confused but also excited by the feelings and sensations discovered in these encounters. No one would have much cared about any of it until the King sets eyes on her at Court aged around 15. He makes her his 5th wife but then uses her past behaviour against her only a few years later.
Katheryn Howard is indeed a very “poignant examination of power, truth and blame set against the closeted, opposing confines of the Tudor court”.
Hiscock’s four other female supporting cast work well together. All five cast remain on stage the entire 75 minutes and it is clear which character(s) each person is playing with some compelling acting from Natalie Harper, Srabani Sen, Emmanuela Lia and Francesca Anderson.
I was a bit confused as to why the costumes are contemporary, as it is clearly presented as an historical piece of its time despite the language being less formal. Although the women occasionally play their male trial accusers, they mostly portray female characters and skirts would have made more sense (to me). If wearing trousers was supposed to make us relate the gossiping / accusations / tittle tattle to current day, I’m not sure it worked. It looked rather that they had run out of money for costumes so made do. But this is a small niggle and does not in any way diminish the substance of the play nor the acting.
This is an interesting and powerful play that deserves a longer run (and hopefully better costumes). There is much interesting historical information without feeling force fed. It is certainly disturbing but powerful and thought-provoking.
“There are men talking about me now…
Talking about you but mainly about me”
Definitely one for history buffs and those intrigued looking at things from a strong female perspective.