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Katheryn Howard by Catherine Hiscock at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

Katheryn Howard by Catherine Hiscock
Katheryn Howard by Catherine Hiscock – Photographer Georgia Harris.

It doesn’t take long to understand that Katheryn Howard isn’t going to end well. She was the fifth wife of King Henry VIII – let’s see now. “Divorced, beheaded, died; divorced, beheaded…” Ah. There is a growing interest in the stories of Henry VIII’s wives, perhaps because the king’s own life has been so well-documented that learning about the various queen consorts, of whom comparatively little is common knowledge. There are other shows about the different wives – Anne Boleyn premiered at the Globe Theatre in London in 2010, and the musical Six goes from strength to strength, having just announced (at the time of writing) a Broadway opening.

Katherine Howard, by William Nicholson, was performed at Chichester Festival Theatre in 1998, though the unique selling point for this play, by Catherine Hiscock, is that it dispenses with having Henry VIII, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and other princes, dukes and lords to focus in on what is being said by the various ‘ladies in waiting’ to Howard (also Hiscock) as well as Howard’s own inner thoughts. The show’s programme does not make clear how much, if any, artistic licence has been used – I would have thought it highly unlikely that the script is comprised of verbatim quotes, highlighted here by the simple but effective use of characters putting their hands to their mouths, to signify confidentiality and discretion.

But there are times when the women are pacing the performance space like people do in NBC Television’s The West Wing, deploying the storytelling technique of ‘walking and talking’ that is far more suited to television and film, or if it is to be used on a stage, it is preferable to do it on a stage with a revolve. Here, they look like prisoners pacing the limited cell space given to them because they really have nothing else to do, and rather ironically, when Howard is eventually sent to the Tower, all that movement is absent.

The costumes are contemporary, as is the language, though there is no attempt to drag the narrative into the twenty-first century with any references to modern technology or anything that wouldn’t have existed in the Tudor period. Katheryn Tilney (Emmanuela Lia), Howard’s maid of honour, is one of three other Katheryns beside Howard in Henry’s court, and details are presented as to what constitutes daily life in the royal palace for the ladies – in short, it’s something many women aspire to but in reality it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be.

No character leaves the stage throughout the performance, and the lighting, by and large, keeps constant, leaving everyone illuminated. It is not, however, difficult to work out who is talking – the production is blocked well, with those engaged in dialogue front and centre. Thomas Culpeper and Francis Dereham, both courtiers, are spoken of but never heard from, as the production seeks to keep the focus on Howard, with justification.

What begins as general jubilation that Howard is to become queen consort gradually fades until there is outright melancholy all around. The show starts to drag once Howard knows her fate, and the final scenes essentially become ‘the long goodbye’ before the inevitable happens. But it is still quite impactful, and this production includes a good amount of historical detail without bamboozling or overburdening the audience. This show is an intriguing assertion of Howard’s version of events, and while it is tough going in places, it is a worthwhile experience, particularly for those with a keen interest in British history.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

A young woman on trial.
Locked within her rooms, whilst men investigate their conduct, the young queen and her ladies await the interrogations they know will come. Katheryn Howard is a poignant examination of power, truth and blame set against the closeted, opposing confines of the Tudor court. An all-female cast present an intense and haunting portrayal of the final days of seventeen-year-old Queen Katheryn, the fifth wife of King Henry VIII.
There are men talking about me now
Talking about you but mainly about me

The Creative Team |
Playwright | Catherine Hiscock
Producer | Natalie Harper for Goose Bite Theatre Company

Brockley Jack Studio Theatre
410 Brockley Road, London, SE4 2DH


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