Of all the wives that Henry VIII had during his reign, Katheryn Howard is arguably the one who history has judged the harshest. Given Henry Tudor’s ‘wandering eye’, it seems ‘rich’ that Howard’s actions are reprehensible while his are ‘condoned’ because of his position. Of course the ‘backlash’ may be due to the fact she arguably gave the most notorious monarch in Christendom every excuse to dispose of her as he willed…
Written by Catherine Hiscock and directed Georgia Leanne Harris, Katheryn Howard acts as devil’s advocate, placing the focus on Howard herself and the women who were her peers.
Initially behaving like a Greek Chrous, the ladies-in-waiting speak of Howard’s reputation and what she’s allegedly done. Tellingly, at this juncture, Howard (who is played by Hiscock) sits solemnly in silence, without a ‘voice’. As the rumours regarding Howard gain momentum, the women grow ever-fearful for their own safety. For if Howard is guilty of even half the things she’s purported to have done and they’ve not reported what they know to the relevant authorities, the women will all be guilty by association and meet the same fate as their queen…
The paranoia among the women, and fractured opinions regarding rules versus personal happiness mirrors Federico García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, with ‘piety’ battling it out with the desires of the flesh. As head of the ‘household’, Lady Isabelle Baynton (Srabani Sen) tries to quell all the hearsay, for fear that everyone will be ‘tarred with the same brush’ as Howard.
But while Baynton is an authority figure who wants all to ‘toe the line’, Lady Joan Bulmer (Francesa Anderson) is more circumspect about the state of affairs. If being sexually active is a capital offence and Howard is found guilty, so will Bulmer. Very much adopting a stance of ‘see no evil, hear no evil’, Lady Katheryn Tilney (Emmanuela Lia) refuses to believe in any of the initial rumours, and in matters of the value and rights of women at this time, a tad naïve. But as the circumstantial evidence accumulates, she has to contend with the unthinkable…
In contrast, as a seasoned spectator of Henry’s ‘love life’, Lady Jane Boleyn (Natalie Harper) – the widow of George Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s brother – has no illusions about what lies in store for all and doesn’t feel the need to watch her tongue.
Having heard about other people’s opinions, the most revelatory are from Howard herself. Acknowledging the rumours that have been circulating about her, she takes pains to extricate ‘the facts from the fiction’. Proving the adage that the most credible lies contain a high degree of truth, Howard’s experiences show that when it comes to gossip, people ‘don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story’.
In the world of Tudors, there is no solidarity among the women, no conversation that passes the Bechdel Test. The fate of all the women is in the hands of the monarch and the rest of the patriarchy. Their survival depends on predicting the whims of the hegemony – something that consumes their every thought.
Looking at the play now, it’s hard not to see the parallels of Tudor Britain with Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In many ways, the circumstances surrounding Katheryn Howard and Henry VIII’s other wives encapsulate the dominance of the patriarchy in one concentrated period of time. If this play shows us anything at all, it’s that while the status quo may be externally oppressive, the power it has – especially over women – is augmented by the fear and disunity it sows, deflecting the ‘blame’ away from itself.
© Michael Davis 2019
Katheryn Howard ran at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre from 30th July to 3rd August.