Queen Anne provides a rare opportunity for women to play roles in an RSC production which were written by a woman for women to play. No gender blind casting here. Which turns out to be perhaps undesirable – because the men are mostly lacklustre and don’t give the women the springboards and opposition/ motivation they truly need. Still, the play is an interesting examination of politics and friendship – but this time told from a vantage point which recognises and respects women in power. For that alone, Queen Anne is worth seeing.
Helen Edmundson’s Queen Anne is a far better play than Natalie Abrahami’s production for the RSC suggests. First conceived for the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon, and despite its transfer to the more lavish environment of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, Abrahimi’s production, at least the physical aspects, does not burst with West End vigour or innovative directorial energy.
There is a genial torpor about the production which might, and I stress might, seem at home in the sometimes tomb-like atmosphere of the Swan, but which is plainly unpardonable in London. No matter which way you look at it, this is as dull as production of this play as you might hope to encounter. Hannah Clark provides a set which would work fine in the limitations of the Swan but which just seems like mutton dressed as mutton in the Theatre Royal.
Nothing about it is beguiling – when people appear on upper balconies, it is difficult to stifle a yawn of incredulous disbelief. There is much to be said about Clark’s costumes, but it is the women who wear them with style; the men seem to be simply dressing for a Christmas pageant. Nothing about how the men look seems real. This is a far cry from Nell Gwynn. This production demonstrates the dangers of transfers to the West End which are not properly thought through.
Much can be forgiven, and often is, when an adventurous choice is made by a company based outside of London. Risks can and should be taken, and when they succeed, the reward of a West End transfer should be joyous. But not every production is Chichester’s Gypsy or Sheffield’s Everybody’s Talking About Jamie – as the recent transfer of Bath’s The Mentor demonstrated, sometimes a production needs to be rethought for the London stage and for London audiences.
Queen Anne certainly should have been. It is not as if Edmundson’s script is not ambitious and ingenious enough – it is. The play centres around friendships between Anne, first a Princess, then a Queen, and Sarah Churchill, a fiercely ambitious and persuasive Whig lover and Tory hater, and Abigail Hill, Sarah’s penniless cousin who comes to Court to make her way. Each woman is fascinating in her own right, and each could be the centrepiece in a play of real interest.
But this is Anne’s play. It traces her odd path to the monarchy, her happy marriage to the goofy George, her political allegiances, those forced upon her and those she chose, her canny instinct and resolute spirit, and her foremost desire to be the mother of her country. Political turmoil was as oppressive to her then as it must be now to Mrs May; the freedoms given to the press following the lapse of The Licensing Act in 1695 permitted discourse and criticism on the streets, with newly emerging newspapers, as well as privately printed pamphlets, vying for the public’s attention and generating debate and criticism.
Queen Anne finds herself caught between factions. On the one hand, there is her much loved friend, Sarah, and her military mastermind husband, John, both confirmed Whigs who, with Lord Chancellor Godolphin, seek to keep their political allies in power and gold. On the other hand, there is her maid, Abigail, and Robert Harley, the Tory Speaker of the Commons, who have very different views and desires to their Whig opponents.
All of this is fascinating stuff. The world knows quite a lot about English Kings named Henry, James and Richard, but, at least theatrically, little is known of English Queens named Anne, Mary or even Elizabeth. That Edmundson seeks to redress that is both significant and welcome. That her writing achieves such splendid muscularity, such genuine interest, is a testament to her beliefs and skills.
Make no mistake – this is a well written play, even if it is not well cast and directed. There are interesting themes swirling underneath the political and personal: neither Anne nor Abigail are considered conventionally attractive, Sarah is; yet all three are formidable and intelligent women. Anne’s loss of children through miscarriage or early death is somehow discounted against Sarah’s loss of her son, heir to the Churchill name; no one pays much attention to Abigail’s child. Sarah’s beauty seems to mark her as righteous, but wrongly; Anne and Abigail have more honour in their outlook. These notions give the historical tale a modern, incisive edge. Not only is the political chicanery resonant in our times, but so are the ingrained prejudices.
The three central performances are really very, very good. Beth Park is quite marvellous as the slightly acrid, but brilliantly self-possessed and acutely agile Abigail. She manages to be both obvious and enigmatic at once, her pain and fear evident in every precisely calibrated move. It’s a performance of real skill, moving and intense.
Romola Garai swirls, bridles and simmers with energetic and impassioned superiority as Sarah Churchill. She is astute and entitled, you feel the pearls in her voice, the gold in her hair, and the silver in her blood. Wealth and aristocratic superiority motivate and animate her assured sensibility. She is shocked when Anne turns on her, and the audience feels her surprise keenly. Her attempts to humiliate her Queen and then reconcile with her are painful to watch. Garai is a marvel of passive aggressive friend shaming, believable and infuriating. What is most splendid about her performance is Garai’s willingness to be disliked. It’s powerful to watch her sense of empire unravel.
As Anne, Emma Cunliffe really shines. She plays the Ugly Duckling part of the role with infinite exactitude – her early scenes as the sickly, slightly cloying Princess are carefully played, as is her love for and dependence upon Garai’s Sarah. But, equally, the joy she has for her Prince George is sweetly truthful.
When power is thrust upon her, and the crown becomes hers, the transformation into Queenly Swan commences. While Cunliffe keeps the physical tortures of the character – the gout and other tangible afflictions – firmly in view, she also brilliantly essays the intellectual blooming, as the Queen spreads her wings and makes her muscles flex. Cunliffe never overplays her hand. Her Anne is formidable but sensitive, quiet but forceful, innovative but traditional. She wants to ensure her country is made greater by her time as its monarch – and she succeeds. I think the greatest praise you can give Cunliffe is that seeing her performance makes you want to read more about this remarkable woman.
James Garnon, long a stalwart at the Globe, makes a sincerely good impression as the wily Robert Harley. He plays the comedy deftly – his repeated catchphrase really scores comic goals – but, as well, he provides an iron underside for the political machinations that keep Harley’s breath going in and out. Alone of the men in the cast, he finds the same level of performance as Cunliffe, Garai and Park and gives them something to work off and against.
Of the other men, Richard Hope is the most successful, but his Godolphin lacks a backbone, gruff bluster being his main character trait. Still, he is far more convincing than anyone else. Chu Omambala is lamentably one note as Churchill, a character a blaze with colour and texture. Dave Fishley completely throws away his part as William III, making him an incredulous buffoon.
There are scenes full of ribald songs and raunchy overtones, but they none of them really work. The opening song is desperately unfunny and tonally foolish. Even though there are characters such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe in these scenes, they all leave no impression. It is like watching the cast aside scenes from the worst Carry On gang films – embarrassing and unfunny. Jonathan Christie, as Arthur Maynwaring MP, is a poor Charles Hawtrey and a lamentable Kenneth Williams, although his Barbara Windsor nearly makes the grade. Close, but absolutely no cigar.
Queen Anne should be a better hit than it is, but the lacklustre male performers drag down the excellent work of the female stars.
Men undoing women – in word and in action, this play speaks for many ages.