Apart from the pitiful knowledge I garnered from secondary school history lessons (it wasn’t my favourite subject), I know very little about Henry VIII’s six wives and their individual stories. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from Goose Bite Theatre’s latest production about the life of his fifth wife, Katheryn Howard. What I experienced was an engaging and enraging story of power, the obsession with reputation and a good stark look at the patriarchy from a female perspective. My favourite.
Katheryn Howard is the work of writer Catherine Hiscock, who also plays the title role. Expanded from a monologue which was first performed at Glass Splinters (a new writing night at the Pleasance Theatre), the play covers Katheryn’s life from a young child, right up until her execution following her marriage to King Henry (apologies for the spoiler). Through the course of the 80 minute, one act play, we learn that Katheryn had been ‘involved’ with men before her marriage to Henry VIII – which as you can imagine, doesn’t go down well with the King. Through the course of heart wrenching and wonderfully written monologues interspersed with scenes that include her ladies in waiting, Katheryn recounts her heartbreaking encounters with these men – starting with a music teacher who abused her when she was a child (it’s worth noting that Katheryn was only around 16 when she married Henry – and younger still when he became ‘interested’ in her). The shame, the confusion, the denial – Hiscock’s brilliant writing conveys the experience of an oppressed and powerless female perfectly. The way the subject matter was explored made it feel so current and relatable.
The cast is made up of five – Katheryn, and an ensemble of women who play various ladies in waiting and also serve as a Greek Chorus, narrating and commenting on the story as it unfolds. The direction made good use of what can be a very challenging (and compact) space. However in terms of the movement direction, I felt the gestures employed in the chorus sections lacked energy and precision – even the gestures themselves (a finger to the lips to represent a secret – hands crossed in front of the face to represent, well actually I’m not quite sure what) were so over simplistic and repetitive that they failed to translate much meaning.
A special mention must go to Francesca Anderson in the role of Joan Bulmer who gave a detailed and dynamic performance.
The stand out elements of the piece for me were undoubtedly the writing and performance of Catherine Hiscock as Katheryn. The use of language combined with such a nuanced and believable performance had me totally engaged in young Katheryn and her story – the story of a girl who has no power, and therefore no control over her narrative. It was also beyond brilliant to see a piece with an all female cast, creative team and crew. A thought provoking and, in many ways, accomplished piece which I sincerely hope has another outing.
Katheryn Howard is showing at the Hope Theatre, Islington until 16th November.