What is the Reaction of English Language Learners to Seeing a Historical Play?

English language learners – The Last Wife

Are you a teacher of intermediate to advanced English language learners? Do you ever take your students to see a live play in English?  If not, why not? Are you afraid that the language experience may be too difficult for your learners? Do you wonder if your English language learners will be interested enough to see a historical play in English?

I teach English language learners at a francophone college in Montréal, Cégep de Saint-Laurent.  I’ve been taking students to see live plays each term for over 10 years.  I have to admit we are lucky in Montréal to have a professional playhouse like the Centaur, offering highly entertaining plays.

I always get excited about the plays I take students to see and make an effort to integrate them into the curriculum I teach.  Recently, my English language learners and I went to see The Last Wife at the Centaur. 

The Last Wife

The Last Wife: Centaur Theatre

Based on the theme of women and power, the play tells the story of Katherine Parr, Henry VIII’s sixth wife. The Last Wife focuses on her relationship with Henry, as well as Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward, his three children.

The director, Eda Holmes, described the play as “a smart and stylish drama, full of sexy characters and life-and-death stakes – all pillars of a great piece of theatre.”

I knew I would enjoy the play since I am a keen student of literature and history.  But I have to admit I was not sure that my students would be as appreciative of the play as I was.

I asked learners to reflect on these 11 elements–based on analyse a play created by Vanier College, after seeing the play: themes, characters, actions, soliloquies and monologues, plot, conflict, time, symbolism and imagery, soliloquies and monologues, key lines, setting, and the music and props.

I was blown away by the comments my students made after seeing the play.  What do you think?

Student Comments on The Last Wife
Themes

The themes were very fitting with today’s political struggles (women’s power and status in society). – Audrey

It tackles female empowerment in an entertaining and realistic way.
– Andrew, Iris and Carmel

I find the exploration of the 16th century told by a post-feminist point of view to underline the behavioural education and submitted women and the submitter men to be an original and avant-garde way to tell an untold part of our history. – Keenan

Characters

I really loved the character Elizabeth. I thought she felt the closest to a modern day person: relatable, funny but especially outgoing and happy.
– Félix and Alexe

I enjoyed Kate’s boldness and selflessness in supporting her two step-daughters. It shows great feminine solidarity which is something that is omitted in historical literature or even in fiction. – Cynthia and Eugène

The characters were played beautifully and followed a nice harmony all together. The actor of Henry had a beautiful voice that matched his character of a King. Thomas was played very well relating to the history it is based on. In all, the acting is very well done, but I don’t like the fact how the story skips from the death of Katherine straight to her funeral with her two daughters. It deserves a couple scenes to describe her death. – Mark

The actor who played Edward is very talented. It is hard to believe that someone as young as him is already a professional and is pursuing his dreams at full speed. – Justin

I was amazed by the acting! Especially by the relation between Katherine and Henry. I was impressed by how they made me feel like I was is the 1400’s.
– Mathieu

I was really impressed by the performance of the actor who plays Edward. He really seemed to have a lot of fun being on stage which made him really credible in his role.

Actions

Lots of making out – a little weird when it’s done between people with a 30 years age difference.

Sensitive topics, such as rape, were addressed, in a way that touched the public. – Sarah

Perhaps it is me that is not used to this kind of acting, but the way the actors delivered their performances was, in my opinion, exaggerated. A complete turn off for me. – Ben

Plot

The plot of the story, and the way the actors were able to make the play go this smoothly. I would’ve wished that the story was more historically accurate, but it is really a great story in itself.

Soliloquies / monologues

I really enjoyed the language. It was familiar language. It wasn’t hard to understand. I especially liked all the jokes and sarcastic tone. Each character really represented the vocabulary of the time period. – Edward and Sebastien

Conflict

The conflict between Henry and the other characters is a central element of the play. I enjoyed those scenes because they livened up the play. I liked how Katherine stood up to Henry even though she knew about his previous wives’ fate. It showed a part of history that is definitely not known.
– Eugène and Cynthia

Time

I don’t know if it was because of budget restrictions, but the fact that the costumes and the accessories were modern really helped me relate to the story. Had they been of the 16th century, the play would have felt outdated and slightly dull. – Eugène and Cynthia

The Renaissance is always an exciting period of our history to go back to observe some of the most important changes our institutions made. – Keenan

It felt like I was missing a substantial amount of information about the context and the plot of the story. It would have been more pleasant and enjoyable to watch if more time were made to explain or describe what is happening during the play. Or maybe, if it was possible, to add a narrator to describe what would happen in the following actions. I would have liked to understand the plot by listening to the lines rather than read on the web beforehand to understand it. Retelling a story that supposedly lasted a few years into a three-hour play killed my understanding. – Justin

I think it was interesting that the issues from the Renaissance were addressed in a more modern period. It helped me to relate more easily to the story.
– Mathilde

Symbolism / imagery

At the beginning of the play, Kate had a very girly dress. As the play evolves, her outfits become more adequate to her growing importance and empowerment. She finishes in a suit, which is a sign of women’s emancipation.

The story uses modern costumes despite the Tudor setting, to show the timelessness of women’s struggles.

I find the symbolism of Henry VIII, depicted as an lustful, harsh and misogynistic man to be biased. Indeed, the play only takes into account some of his less fortunate ventures without underlining the causes that made him one of the greatest English monarchs. – Keenan

Key lines

The story wants to depict women in a position of power, and show they are capable of making important changes despite the inequalities they face.

Setting

I enjoyed how they portrayed the difference in social status of the men and women back in those days. – Sebastien

The play was very clear and understandable from the short context given during the first few scenes. No need for a detailed history background to enjoy the play. – Sarah

The modern adaptation of the true story of Henry VIII’s last years alive really made it easier to connect to the play and the characters. – Justin

Music / props/ costumes/ transitions

We really enjoyed the music throughout the play, the two notes fading out of time ever so slowly amazed me at the possibilities of the effects of music in plays, especially so in complete darkness. This feeling was completely new and made me realize how much life is beautiful. – Félix and Alexe

We liked the decor. It was funny.

The transitions were some of the best I have ever seen. I’m not an expert in this genre of art, but I could tell it was pro-level work.  It made the play go seamlessly and was satisfying to watch. – Solange

The decor was mesmerizing. The large window/mirror-like panels were really impressive. However, what really caught my eye were the gold flakes in the background. It felt kind of ‘heavenly’ like, dare I say, especially when the light would hit them from time to time. – Solange

The decor was quite simple, yet your crew was very innovative in finding new interpretations and uses for it. – Sarah

I really loved how you modernized the story. For example, you could’ve used some old dresses from these times but I loved how you took modern clothing. I feel like this choice helped us see how amazing Katherine Parr was because her clothing resembles the image of a successful woman of our times. – Alice

If you and your English language learners saw The Last Wife too, add your comments.

Portrait Image by b0red on Pixabay

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