When you think about the six wives of Henry VIII, do you think about serious-looking women in hoods in Tudor portraits or do you think about six pop divas in diamante-studded boots and sparkly eyeshadow dancing across the Sydney Opera House stage?
Twist on the Tudors: The UK cast of Six, a smash hit on the West End and now in Australia. Image credit: Idil Sukan
The musical Six reimagines the six wives of Henry VIII in a pop musical in which each of the wives has the chance to tell her story in song and dance. Six was written by Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, and premiered in 2017 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It has been enormously successful in the UK and was taken to the US in 2019 and into Australia in 2020.
The closest analogue for Six is probably Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton, another historical story set to modern music. No prior knowledge of the queens is needed, although those who do know their Tudor history are given plenty of Easter eggs.
The plot of Six is simple. The wife who is deemed by the audience to have had had the worst experience will be crowned the band’s lead singer, they explain in the opening number Ex-Wives. And so begins the fun.
I never knew how much I needed a dance remix of Greensleeves, and I doubt there was anybody in the theatre without a huge smile on their face throughout the show.
Six is, in fact, enormous fun and a very self-consciously feminist take on women whose lives have been defined by the man they married. No man appears on stage, either in the cast or the band. The songs are catchy and danceable, and the cast’s energy is infectious. I never knew how much I needed a dance remix of Greensleeves, and I doubt there was anybody in the theatre without a huge smile on their face throughout the show. The line "Okay ladies now let’s get in Reformation" is worth the price of admission alone.
The wives themselves are inspired by contemporary pop singers. The program explains Marlow and Moss’s 'Queenspirations', and the style associated with these singers shapes the style of the solos sung by each of the queens.
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Catherine of Aragon (Beyoncé and Shakira) sings the sassy No Way, in which she exhorts Henry VIII that there is no way she will go quietly. Anne Boleyn (Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne) has a sassy, cheeky, double-entendre laden number in Sorry Not Sorry.
Ex-wives club: The Sydney cast of Six, playing at the Opera House until March 5.
Jane Seymour (Adele and Sia) sings the ballad Heart of Stone. Katherine Howard (Ariana Grande and Britney Spears) meditates on her own sexual appeal in All You Wanna Do, while Catherine Parr (Alicia Keys and Emeli Sandé) declares that I Don’t Need Your Love as she rues not being able to marry the man she truly loves.
However, it is Anne of Cleves (Nicki Minaj and Rihanna) who steals the show with Get Down, a raunchy and celebratory number that celebrates the fact that it was Anne of Cleves who managed to have the happiest ending of all the queens.
In case you are thinking that the court of Henry VIII and a pop musical seem unlikely bedfellows, I can tell you that this is far from the most unusual take on the story that I have encountered. I am writing a book on historical fictions about Anne Boleyn, and I’ve seen it all: time-travelling Anne Boleyns, ghostly Anne Boleyns, Anne Boleyn in high school, and even (of course) vampiric Anne Boleyns.
The story of the six wives has exerted fascination for centuries, and Six is the latest in a long line of representations of that story to read the interests of the present through the story of Henry’s queens. For the Victorians, for example, Anne Boleyn was the image of virtue in distress, while in the 20th century, Anne Boleyn was often represented as the Tudor equivalent of an ambitious career woman.
Seriousness beneath the glitzy fun
As Hannah Capin says in The Dead Queens Club (2019)—a novel in which the wives of Henry VIII are imagined as high school girls who team up as a girl gang in order to take Henry down—“the entire Anne Boleyn story can be whatever the storyteller wants it to be, for better or worse”.
The choreography in Katherine Howard’s solo smartly demonstrates the claims that men make over women’s bodies.
Six is a very 21st century take on the story, and underneath all the glitzy fun is a recognition of the fact that women throughout history have suffered at the hands of the men who profess to love them. These are women who were cast aside or killed and had little say over their own futures.
Catherine of Aragon notes that she was taken across the sea to England from her native Spain to marry a man she had never met. Anne Boleyn sings about having no choice but to reciprocate Henry’s attentions. The choreography in Katherine Howard’s solo smartly demonstrates the claims that men make over women’s bodies. Six is the story of Henry VIII’s wives for the #MeToo age.
A pedant might note a few things. Anne Boleyn at one stage sings that “politics is not for me”, but the historic Anne Boleyn was certainly involved in the politics of the court. Likewise, Anne Boleyn sports green sleeves throughout as a nod to the legend that Henry wrote the tune for Anne. However, the song popularised by ice cream vans everywhere likely dates from the reign of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I.
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Jane Seymour’s characterisation is also a bit problematic. The show posits that she was the only wife who truly loved Henry—and was loved in return—and ignores the fact that she was positioned by her family to capture Henry’s interests away from Anne Boleyn for religious and political reasons. Jane Seymour’s song is also perhaps the least compelling of the solos, and so she does not quite evade her reputation as the most boring of Henry’s wives.
However, these quibbles are minor. Six is delightful, silly, smart and cheeky. On the way out of the theatre, I overheard a young woman saying that she wanted to read more about Henry’s wives, and a young girl proudly pulled on her 'Queen of the Castle' T-shirt. Six makes the story of these long-dead queens relevant to contemporary audiences and transforms them into individuals. No longer divorced, beheaded or dead, these queens are alive.
Long Live the Queens.
Dr Stephanie Russo, pictured, is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English, specialising in literature of the early modern period. She is currently working on a book on the literary afterlife of Anne Boleyn.
SIX is playing at the Sydney Opera House until March 5, 2020.