“Less an assortment of tales of woe than a darkly humorous piece of social commentary, the production finds a way to bring lightheartedness to a truly harrowing bit of history,” writes Devi Sastry.
Music that you might hear at a high tea plays as the audience filters into the auditorium at the Alliance Française de Bangalore. Instead of a closed curtain, our eyes land on a prelude: six queens milling about a room, absorbed in what appears to be an everyday routine. The lights dim, the music changes to an electronic beat, and the queens approach in formation, leaping in synchrony at the audience in all their grisly glory. From the moment the play begins, we know that these queens have left all pretense and propriety in the world of the living.
Bangalore Little Theatre’s all-women production of Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry is a cabaret starring the six queens of Henry VIII of England as they each take the spotlight to tell their story. Less an assortment of tales of woe than a darkly humorous piece of social commentary, the production finds a way to bring lightheartedness to a truly harrowing bit of history. The queens, each wronged by the infamous Henry, share their lives through song, monologue, movement and tableaus, all the while breaking the fourth wall and ceaselessly quarrelling with one another. Doomed to share a single space in the afterlife, the women spend most of their time at each other’s throats, each attempting to assert her legitimacy as the true queen.
A cheery tune introduces all the queens and their various claims to fame, establishing the characters quickly and effectively. In between their squabbles, the women find space to relive weddings, beheadings, divorces, births, deaths, and above all, their gross mistreatment by the king. Catherine of Aragon performs the speech she made before the court in the event of the annulment of her marriage, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard give a haunting account of their beheadings, Jane Seymour speaks of the pressure of being the “good” wife, and the first to have produced an heir, Anne of Cleves raps about her relationship to the king, and Catherine Parr tells the story of her enduring remains. Finally, the object of their righteous anger makes an appearance, and they sublimate their rage with the help of an inflatable Henry doll. A powerful chorus towards the end expresses the burden they shared in terms of the pressure of bearing a son, calling attention to the notion that women, even queens, had no worth unless they were able to produce an heir. Balancing high drama with slapstick sequences and jovial song, the play always finds a way to break the more serious moments with comedy.
As opposed to coming together over their common mistreatment by the king, the queens are in constant friction, each undermining the others’ authority. But in spite of the conflict within the story, the ensemble works wonderfully together. As each queen takes center stage, the rest take on other roles in the play within the play, becoming actors in their own right, even if the previous scene was spent in a brawl. Yes, some of them express reluctance at having to hear Catherine of Aragon recount each of her wedding days, but they nevertheless play their parts; it is almost as though not allowing another queen to tell her story would be an injustice. Of course, such a rapport within the play could not be accomplished without the actors consistently supporting one another.
While there is certainly humour in their jealousy, the beginning of the play is a comically exaggerated version of the myth that women cannot form meaningful friendships because they are always in competition. Throughout the course of the drama, we hear name-calling, threats of duels, witty banter, and shrill exclamations of frustration, all culminating in a slow motion fight sequence in which each queen pairs off to tear another’s hair out. Perhaps this is what makes it all the more satisfying when, as Anne of Cleves goes into a fit of rage after encountering the inflatable Henry, the rest of the queens come together to take care of her.
The most powerful moment was when the queens took turns listing their various successes and failures at the task of giving birth to an heir. This leads into the heart-wrenching chorus criticizing the pressure placed on women to have sons; a sentiment that is not uncommon today. The value of a woman is still inextricably linked to her purity and her ability to bear children, and by pointing out this fact of history, the play forces us to consider its implications in the present. There is an unspoken recognition during the chorus of the common nature of each queen’s plight. This is broken by the harsh ring of the telephone, and when the queens learn that it is Henry on the other line and refuse to speak with him, it is a clear moment of growth. Their progress can be surmised in the jump from fighting for the title of the legitimate queen, to later passing the unwanted crown among them in a manner that is more playful than spiteful.
Other strong aspects include the movement of the actors, from the dancing to the choreographed fighting, as well as the way that the players worked in a group. Anne of Cleves, in particular, always managed to elicit laughter with her performance. Still, each queen balanced her rage with charisma, if not poise, in spite of all the shrieking and catty remarks. Six Dead Queens provides a nuanced perspective on some notorious figures of history, begging the audience to consider their lives, their rights, and above all, the injustices they faced.