Dispatches from the Antipodes: Six

Six – The Musical

Warning – this article contains spoilers.

We take History seriously at the Partial Historians, in the sense that we believe it is important, illuminating and meaningful. Our lives revolve around it and we have dedicated many years to studying it. However, we don’t think that History and a sense of humour, joy and fun are incompatible with any of this. It was therefore an utter delight to attend a performance of Six at the Sydney Opera House last Friday night.

Six is a British musical that tells, or re-tells, the story of the six wives of Henry VIII.  The show has a highly energetic, colourful, concert-like feel to it from beginning to end. Each of Henry’s “ex-wives” take turns to sing a song about their wretched experience being married to the King of England as the ladies compete to see who suffered the most. The writers, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, have cleverly used different pop stars as the inspiration for each queen, giving each song a varied character. Anne Boleyn’s “Don’t Ur Head” and Anne of Cleves “Get Down” have become new favourite show tunes, but the German funk “Haus of Holbein” number stole the show.

Six (musical) - Wikipedia

Watching the delight that the packed audience took in this fusion of current pop music, Tudor instruments and clothing, historical facts, social media and the biographies of queens raised some interesting questions about the nature of History itself. Six will not win awards for strict historical accuracy, but there was something very authentic about the performance. By integrating aspects of modern life, Six has made history much more intelligible and engaging for the audience. Watching Anne of Cleves be selected by Henry VIII and his advisers using Tinder made perfect sense – as if Henry wouldn’t have used this app if he had the chance! Academic history is crucial in terms of carrying out the research that forms the basis for deep and detailed historical understanding, but popular history like Six performs a different and equally important role – communicating with the public in a meaningful way. Six may be filled with silly jokes and puns, but we have no doubt that the audience will remember a lot of what they saw, some of which included historical facts. We also would not be surprised if a show like Six sparks an interest in reading up on the lives of Henry’s wives.

The show ends by highlighting and questioning the fact that each of the characters is only known and talked about because of their relationship with Henry VIII. This is itself is an important fact to illuminate. Each of the queens then goes on to rewrite her story – planning out what her life would have been like without a marriage to the King. This could be written off as wishful thinking, but working counterfactual history into the concluding moments could serve for more robust discussions after the curtain has fallen. In the current climate where quite a few famous films that have been rebooted and gender-swapped have fallen flat, the all-female show and the strong theme of reclaiming the stories of women who lived in more sexist times makes Six a thought-provoking example of popular, feminist historiography and one that we heartily recommend to our listeners. 

Want to learn more about the famous SIX and their life and times? Check out History Extra and the Queens of England podcast.

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!

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