The Six Fix: Turning His-tory into Her Story

Along with the rest of the world, Aussie audiences continue to turn up in their droves to experience Six, the musical that has taken theatreland by storm and given us the most fun history lesson ever.

The hit show is the brainchild of former Cambridge University students Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, who joined forces in 2017 and came up the ultimate in revisionist history: Six the Musical. What started out as a pretty low-profile gig at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival has catapulted into an unimaginably successful phenomenon. The show’s creators even won a Tony award for their exhilarating score back in May, and the show continues to wow crowds across the globe.  With a splash of inspiration from Antonia Fraser’s The Six Wives of Henry VIII and ‘celebrity’ historian Lucy Worsley’s refreshing documentary Six Wives, this hugely successful musical goes a step further than its sources and merges sixteenth-century concepts of womanhood with the twenty-first century female’s demand to be heard.

On the face of it, five centuries have changed nothing. These six feisty females, despite being paraded on stage as individuals, are still linked by one common denominator: their relationship with a man. And rather than promoting ‘sisterhood’ they compete with one another – indeed, the premise of Six is that each wife is competing to be the lead singer of a girl band, with the winner being the most degraded of the six wives – the one who suffered most. In other words, the winner is the biggest loser.

History cannot be changed. It’s irrefutable: these ladies did all marry England’s most famous King. And each one of them did incur the inequities of patriarchy, whether at the hands of the executioner or as a result of ingrained misogyny. There’s little point in denying the facts of history and their ripples through time. And Six cleverly acknowledges this. It recognizes the limitations these women endured and celebrates how far we’ve come; the past, as mentioned, can’t be changed – but the present is up for grabs.

The stereotypical suffering of the sextet is put to good use, utilised to appeal to today’s audiences – audiences who buy into Reality TV and talent shows, who are open to gender-themed enlightenment. So it is massively entertaining to witness each resurrected wife strut onstage, larger than life, giving voice to her story in her words, while recognizably mimicking some of the biggest female stars of our time: Adele, Avril Lavigne, Beyonce, Ariana Grande… Whether henry’s consorts were divorced, beheaded, or died, Six paints a picture of women who won’t be silenced, who are ultimately all survivors.

Having tapped into modern culture, now is the chance to teach the lessons of history. Some of the ways this is achieved is through costume, colour, and feisty lyrics. Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s wife of twenty-four years and therefore a ‘paragon of royalty’, is symbolically adorned in gold: there is ‘No Way’ she is going to give up her crown.

Catherine’s successor Anne Boleyn, usually depicted a strumpet, is presented as a ‘complicated’ Avril Lavigne-style figure. Her green ensemble is indicative of a social climber, consumed by ambition and greed – yet the choker she wears is a clear reminder of the price she paid for going after what she wants: she literally lost her head.

Jane Seymour then muscles her way in, decked out in black and white garb a la Tudor buildings. And while she may be the ‘only one [Henry] truly loved’, and indeed the only one to receive a Queen’s funeral, she did not live beyond childbirth: ‘Soon I’ll have to go/I’ll never see [my son] grow’. But hey, she died giving hubby what he wanted …

Hot on the heels of this not-so-plain Jane is Anne of Cleves, whom Henry wed after clocking her in a Hans Holbein painting. Poor old Henry soon discovered that the artist had been a tad generous: Anne was merely ‘of middling beauty’. The savvy Anne was well aware that ‘[she] didn’t look as good as [her] pic’. Nevertheless, this Dusseldorf-born queen was the only one of the wives to remain on friendly terms with the mercurial monarch – so who said looks trump personality? Despite her marriage being little more than a diplomatic transaction to strengthen England’s allegiance with Germany, Anne didn’t do half bad, outliving both Henry and her five rivals. And, result: she kept her dignity and her head. The upshot is that Anne is free to flaunt her freedom in Rihanna-style garb, including a pair of shorts that would give Kylie – in her Spinning Around days, of course – a run for her money. Anne’s symbolic colour is a gutsy red.  Not such a wallflower, then.

Anne’s heir apparent, Katherine Howard, did not fare so well, facing the executioner’s sword as the culmination of a life of abuse, as recounted in her solo, All You Wanna Do. Her bright pink ensemble represents her youth and naivety, with her choker signalling her sticky end. Those long sleeves, though: her metaphorical suit of armour, they hint that she’s had it up to the back teeth of being a ‘plaything’ and now ‘playtime’s over’.  Unfortunately, only one thing was over for Katherine …

And last but not least, the self-proclaimed ‘survivor’: Catherine Parr. Clad in trousers, this Alicia Keys-cum-Emelie Sandé persona is as cool as her blue aura. There is no doubt that Catherine, as a scholar (she even had a book published) and a Queen Dowager, did her bit for girl power. She’ll have to compete pretty hard …

Entertainment aside, Six ensures that each of the wives survive in the eyes of the general public. And in doing so, an important mission is accomplished: recognising the wrongs of the past and encouraging us to keep addressing inequalities that still exist. Six cannot, obviously, fix the past – but it can and does show us a previously ignored female perspective: her story.

Photo Credit: James D Morgan-Getty

Amanda Ellison

Amanda Ellison is a writer, teacher and labradoodle owner, hailing from a Northumbrian coastal town in the UK. She writes regularly for various publications, exclusively on subjects she is passionate about – including the arts and current affairs!

Amanda Ellison

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