Six is quite a show. It started out as a Cambridge Uni piece that went to the 2017 Edinburgh Festival and grew from there into a worldwide phenomenon. It takes the lives of Henry VIII's six wives and turns them into a tightly plotted, short rock opera, done superbly here by a resolutely Australian cast.
Here they all are, presumably in some kind of high-tech afterlife full of flashing lights and abbreviated versions of Tudor costume, arguing about who can come up with the best song and story about her life with Henry. Backed by a shadowy, hard working rock band, the six women hold court to reclaim their identities out of the shadow of their infamous spouse, twisting the narrative from 500 years of historical heartbreak into a celebration of 21st century girl power.
The first wife, Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon, is given a warm and strong performance by Phoenix Jackson Mendoza. Henry wanted to put her aside after over 20 years of marriage because of her failure to produce sons who lived, but it's very clear that she did not go quietly and Mendoza's performance embodies that power.
Second is Anne Boleyn, beheaded after a similar "failure" in circumstances that are only touched on in passing. There's a fierce performance with a good deal of presence from Kala Gare.
Third wife Jane Seymour (Loren Hunter) provides a necessary change of pace as she sings movingly of her feelings for Henry and of her death shortly after the birth of Henry's only surviving son. There's huge regret here that she didn't see Edward grow up. Ironic too that Edward died aged just 15 and that his sisters Mary and Elizabeth (gloriously) ruled after him.
Anna of Cleves (an excellently sharp job done here by Karis Oka standing in for Kiana Daniele) is briefly wife number four, but the marriage founders on Henry's dislike for her when she apparently does not match up with her preview portrait. The marriage is annulled because it is deemed to be unconsummated. Anna cheerfully negotiates an amiable and lucrative parting that means she does not have to return to Cleves and is able to celebrate an independence from the marriage market she otherwise would not have enjoyed.
Catherine Howard (a slightly lost teenager brought to vivid life by Chelsea Dawson) is wife number five and what a tragedy this turns out to be. She sings about an upbringing that contained a degree of misuse and abuse that make it difficult to conform to the double standard sexual rules for one of Henry's wives. He by this stage is in poor health and hardly attractive but it is Catherine who will pay the price at the block.
The show shifts from the wives' competitiveness with the arrival of wife number six, the learned and thoughtful Catherine Parr (a gentle but telling performance from Vidya Makan). Twice widowed by the time she marries Henry, she will outlive him and go on to wed Thomas Seymour, the man she really loved. The deeper irony behind her farewell song to Thomas is that although she will marry him after Henry's death it will end tragically.
For many the attraction of the show is going to be its upbeat and modern songs - since its early days, Six's Studio Album has achieved more than 450 million streams worldwide. And on that level it is highly successful, subverting the usually masculine rock genre and introducing strong feminist themes.
But if you know something of the history of these women, Six becomes even stronger. Highly recommended.
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