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Soulpepper’s Fierce and Modern Mother’s Daughter Goes to War for the Crown

Soulpepper’s Fierce and Modern Mother’s Daughter Goes to War for the Crown

Shannon Taylor and Fiona Byrne. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

I’m totally excited and honored. I just have to say that upfront. Mainly because my first official foray into Canadian and Torontonian theatre, I was royally blessed most assuredly with seeing Soulpepper Theatre’s spirited Mother’s Daughter, a strong and modern examination of women and power, majestically laid out before us on a dazzling gold table by Kate Henning. It’s her third installment in the Queenmaker Trilogy of plays, something now I’m going to have to seek out and read, that revolve around the British Tudor period. But what makes it so fascinating and relevant, at least to these virgin eyes, is Henning’s whip smart tact, turning and examining their world through the eyes of its women. Mother’s Daughter is seeped in monarchy history, but it is wildly and forcibly presented with a modern vernacular that adds punch and power to the epic story of the Virgin Queen. It makes it relevant and relatable in a way that history sometimes defies.I must admit that this piece of Royal history is not so well known to me as maybe the other Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. That tale has been ridden out before us many many times through numerous plays and films, (I appreciated the jab at the end of this predicament) but Playwright Henning (The Last Wife, The Virgin Trial) takes on this battle gleefully, challenging us to look deeper into the well known crowning of Elizabeth I, aka The Virgin Queen, and investigate the terrain with fresh eyes and ears.  To first uncover the historic quagmire that actually saw sister Mary occupying the thrown first, and from that vantage point, untangle the battle of a daughter desperately trying to legitimize her dead mother’s legacy and contested choices in a world of men and their politics. That’s a story I didn’t know, and I’m ever so thankful for Henning to grant me this look into Mary’s dilemma, particularly through this modern vantage point.

Jessica B Hill and Shannon Taylor. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

Rising up on a stark traditional Shakespearean set, the dramatic thunder roars, setting the conflict on its well trodden path. Gracing the stage in both modern dress and within a bold idiosyncratic historical context, courtesy of the talented costume and set designer Lorenzo Savoini (Soulpepper’s Of Human Bondage), the play charges forward into battle, thrusting forward rivalries that are both complex and believably contradictory, with the magnificent Shannon Taylor (Stratford’s The Crucible) at the helm. She portrays a Mary both proud and unsure, turning to the vision of her mother, King Henry VIII’s first wife, Spanish Princess Catherine of Aragon, played most royally by Fiona Byrne (Soulpepper’s Waiting for the Parade), for guidance, at least until old school aggression takes the lead. Bryne’s use of Shakespearean tone against Taylor’s swift sharp delivery cuts strong, makes it clear what side of history we are on. “What is handed down to us?“, is a question this Stratford Festival production throws forward with the weight of history on its back, as Mary stands strong against the short lived crowning of her rival and teenaged cousin, Lady Jane Grey, gorgeously portrayed with saintly vision by Andrea Rankin (Citadel’s Make Mine Love), and takes the crown for her own, as her more ambitious and headstrong sister, Bess, dynamically embodied by Jessica B. Hill (Segal Stage’s Enemy of the People), stands beside her, urging her forward. But for what purpose?

Beryl Bain, Shannon Taylor, and Maria Vacratsis. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

What are you going to do with Jane?” the Queen is asked, and the light, beautifully crafted by Kimberly Purtell (Soulpepper’s Sisters) flickers as the visionary past steps into view, changing the tone and challenging a modern approach to power and control with authoritarian cruelty. It’s a complicated and engaging dynamic, particularly the battles for power between Jane Gray and Mary, that reverberates with spiritual engagement and understanding. It fills out the historic dilemma while offering no modern solution. But there is also Mary and her power house sister, Bess, who stand strong side by side and possibly against one another, waging war between the head and the heart with a compelling authenticity that resonates.

Jessica B Hill and Shannon Taylor. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

History knows the outcome of the war between head and heart, and as purposefully laid out by director Alan Dilworth (Soulpepper’s Winter Solstice), Mother’s Daughter gamely goes to war with historic expectations and tradition, using dialect and modern language as sword to fight against tradition. “You will not fall“, Queen Mary is told as she steps forcibly up on that majestic gold table taking control of her forces while also listening intently to her two closest but often opposing viewed female advisors; the hilariously effective Susan, deliciously portrayed by Maria Vacratsis (Soulpepper’s Escaped Alone), and the strong determined Bassett, diligently played by Beryl Bain (Grand’s The Mountaintop). The three almost take pleasure from putting the one male, Simon, well played by Gordon Patrick White (Neptune’s The Devil’s Disciple), down to his lower place of rank and position, as it is he and the world weary tradition of King Henry VIII that leads with aggression and violence over understanding or empathy.

Shannon Taylor and Gordon Patrick White. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

Butch enough?“, the Queen says as she takes a stand of authority against an onslaught of hostile forces, much like this Soulpepper production does with Henning’s precise interpersonal dynamics and clear strategic vantage point. This Mother’s Daughter releases the hounds in all its glory, finding the complications and conflicts of ruling under the crown and delivers it with a might that captivates. “You have to be a complete asshole to do this job.” And maybe that’s true, but this production gallops forward into battle with such assurance that we can only sit back and be ruled most gloriously by Queen Taylor and her band of feisty troops. Thanks Soulpepper for making my first foray so majestically exhilarating.

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Andrea Rankin and Shannon Taylor in Soulpepper Theatre‘s Mother’s Daughter. Written by Kate Henning and directed by Alan Dilworth. Photo: Dahlia Katz

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Out of Town

My love for theater started when I first got involved in high school plays and children's theatre in London, Ontario, which led me—much to my mother’s chagrin—to study set design, directing, and arts administration at York University in Toronto. But rather than pursuing theater as a career (I did produce and design a wee bit), I became a self-proclaimed theater junkie and life-long supporter. I am not a writer by trade, but I hope to share my views and feelings about this amazing experience we are so lucky to be able to see here in NYC, and in my many trips to London, Enlgand, Chicago, Toronto, Washington, and beyond. Living in London, England from 1985 to 1986, NYC since 1994, and on my numerous theatrical obsessive trips to England, I've seen as much theater as I can possibly afford. I love seeing plays. I love seeing musicals. If I had to choose between a song or a dance, I'd always pick the song. Dance—especially ballet—is pretty and all, but it doesn’t excite me as, say, Sondheim lyrics. But that being said, the dancing in West Side Story is incredible! As it seems you all love a good list, here's two. FAVORITE MUSICALS (in no particular order): Sweeney Todd with Patti Lupone and Michael Cerveris in 2005. By far, my most favorite theatrical experience to date. Sunday in the Park with George with Jenna Russell (who made me sob hysterically each and every one of the three times I saw that production in England and here in NYC) in 2008 Spring Awakening with Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele in 2007 Hedwig and the Angry Inch (both off-Boadway in 1998 and on Broadway in 2014, with Neal Patrick Harris, but also with Michael C. Hall and John Cameron Mitchell, my first Hedwig and my far), Next To Normal with Alice Ripley (who I wish I had seen in Side Show) in 2009 FAVORITE PLAYS (that’s more difficult—there have been so many and they are all so different): Angels in American, both on Broadway and off Lettice and Lovage with Dame Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in 1987 Who's Afraid of Virginai Woolf with Tracy Letts and Amy Morton in 2012 Almost everything by Alan Ayckbourn, but especially Woman in Mind with Julia McKenzie in 1986 And to round out the five, maybe Proof with Mary Louise Parker in 2000. But ask me on a different day, and I might give you a different list. These are only ten theatre moments that I will remember for years to come, until I don’t have a memory anymore. There are many more that I didn't or couldn't remember, and I hope a tremendous number more to come. Thanks for reading. And remember: read, like, share, retweet, enjoy. For more go to

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