Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. A piece of history encompassed in a rhyme that we all learnt about at school, but not one that I think any of us saw hitting the West End some five centuries later. And who would’ve thought that a Tudor tale of misery and woe, set when women were seen to be the property of their husbands would, in the present day, ironically become such a symbol of feminine strength?
Written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, SIX!’s cast and band are exclusively female. Although each wife recounts her quite frankly shocking tale of life as Henry’s wife, the absence of Henry himself from the show means that this version of history becomes a female polyphonic tale, giving a voice to those who were previously silenced. Despite trying to compete against each other as to who endured the worst treatment, they realise that it’s their shared experiences that give them the power of female unity. Shame they didn’t have each other back then…
And although we’ve certainly seen some strong female protagonists on the stage in recent years, few have left me with that same feeling of unfaltering female empowerment as these six queens. Matilda’s Miss Trunchball and Annie’s Miss Hannigan could rival the queens in terms of their gumption; however, they’re much more fallible. Both characters are frequently played by a male actor; Bertie Carvel played Miss Trunchball on the West End and Craig Revel Horwood played Miss Hannigan at the Piccadilly Theatre, perhaps suggesting (whether intentionally or not) that for a female character to be strong and independent, it is best played by a man.
The act of cross-dressing in theatre is usually found in a comedic setting, typically in Pantomime and in Shakespearian comedy such as Twelfth Night, whereby the switching of garb causes all sorts of dramatic irony and comic misunderstandings. For the most part, the decision to use a male actor to portray a female character will likely be very entertaining. The actor tends to behave in a manner that’s very over the top, possessing over-emphasised female features which draw attention to the artificiality and meta-theatricality of their craft, and therefore to some extent to the values of the gender they portray. If we think of gender as performative, the aforementioned female antagonists become somewhat problematic, particularly for a younger audience which is more easily influenced. Add that to the fact that Miss Trunchball flees from Matilda’s magical powers and Miss Hannigan succumbs to alcoholism and any merit the two protagonists had as female leaders is somewhat compromised.
Given the period in which the musical is set, it is fairly unsurprising that the knot that ties the six threads together is oppression within the institution of marriage. The length of Henry VIII’s marriages ranges from 23 years to just six months, yet for the queens, time scale doesn’t appear to alter the way they feel towards him. After all, the role of the Tudor wife was to produce children and the queens are subconsciously united right from the start in the way that their lives have been limited because of this. The way that the queens are able to own their own narrative, each one getting her own spotlight, shows a steep divergence from the harsh reality of the Tudor woman’s rights (or lack thereof) to express herself.
This is where we find the principal reason for the musical’s success. It’s able to create an infectious feeling of female empowerment which is paradoxically born from the very inequality of the genders in the Tudor period. Marlow and Moss apply aspects of contemporary feminist theory to these queens with whom it would otherwise be extremely hard for a 21st century audience to empathise, given the advancements in gender equality in the last 500 years. Their choice of costume provides a more subtle nod to modern day feminism; using period dress certainly wouldn’t have had the same message as short skirts and trousers. Marlow and Moss tap into the point of view of the wronged and the marginalised, yet there’s never the sense we should feel sorry for the queens who seem perfectly capable of weathering their grievances. Pair that with an epic pop soundtrack, witty double entendre and a powerful sisterhood and you’re onto a winner.
Whilst I don’t wish to suggest by any means that the female protagonist should be presented as completely infallible (in fact this would be a mistake in itself), the fact that the six queens have what seems like the ultimate revenge as a response to their plight, presents a much more valuable contemporary message. As Cathy Parr reminds us in her somewhat sobering denouement, ‘[I’ve] been a wife twice before, just to survive’. The role of the female is constantly in flux – I just never expected to be reminded of this by a show that has results from a period when women were so desperately oppressed by social norms and gender was so overtly binarized within the institution of marriage.
Image: Kenny Maths on Flickr