Henry VIII has died and, in purgatory, is awaiting judgement. The jury? His six wives. Henry spent his entire reign obsessed with providing a male heir, so how will he cope learning that his legacy is dominated by women?
Ladies in Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII is a historical play written by James Cougar Canfield, who also plays Henry in the production. Each of the characters is well portrayed, with a special mention for Hilary Kelman as his long-suffering first wife, Catherine of Aragon.
As you take your seats, you’ll notice a man prostrate on the floor and six chairs arranged along the wall. Six women enter individually, look at the man, and then take their seats. And a chant begins, familiar to many of us from school: divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded… survived.
When Henry lurches to his feet, each of his wives emerges in turn, to talk and remonstrate with their erstwhile husband and give Henry some indication on how he is viewed by history. Anne of Cleves shows him a mask, sold in museum gift shops: it’s Henry in his most famous portrait, when he was old and fat. Henry is naturally shocked that this is how he is represented, and that that he is most famous for his relationships with his many wives rather than for any of his achievements. Henry is also horrified to discover that his greatest descendant was his daughter, Elizabeth – whose mother, Anne Boleyn, he executed – rather than his beloved son Edward. The historical debate is well done in general, and it is interesting to think about how we would wish to be remembered, compared with the likely reality.
At the end of each wife's time with Henry a clock chimes, the lights go down, and the chant is repeated – ending on the relevant descriptor for the next wife, for example 'divorced' for Anne of Cleves. This neatly ties each woman to Henry, and provides a structure similar to that of a trial, keeping the fact that this is a process of judgement in the audience's mind.
If you have read any of the numerous biographies on Henry or his wives, then this show will not offer you much in the way of new facts about his reign. But it's well presented and performed – and provides an insight into how the wives might see themselves, in relation to Henry and, more importantly, as women.