by Helen Edmundson
Directed by Natalie Abrahami
Designer Hannah Clark
Royal Shakespeare Company,
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon
Saturday 28th November 2015, 1.30 pm
Linguistically, Queen Anne has something in common with New Zealand. Neither established an adjective version. So we have Australian lamb, Irish butter, but plain New Zealand lamb and New Zealand butter. We have Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline drama, Georgian houses, Victorian ethics, but Queen Anne furniture, Queen Anne houses. Furniture (especially chair) is her main collocation. A Queen Anne chair is in catalogues today … a high-backed upright comfy chair with arms. The definition is that Queen Anne furniture is somewhat smaller, lighter and more comfortable than its predecessors with curving shapes. Her predecessors, William III & Mary II never earned an adjective either.
Anne was the last Stuart, the younger daughter of James II. She died childless (despite seventeen pregnancies, and three live births, one son surviving to eleven) ushering in the Hanoverians who put Georgian on everything … well, there were four of them called George in a row. They tried calling sons Frederick for the sake of change, but they died. Anne was married to Prince George of Denmark, and her best friend was Sarah Churchill. Sarah was considered the most powerful woman in the country, and her husband became the first Duke of Marlborough, and the victor in the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. The play is billed as Anne – The forgotten queen and started me looking up her details. She presided over the Act of Union between England and Scotland to form Great Britain (excellent topical jokes in the play), and Britain won the War of Spanish Succession under Marlborough’s generalship to establish itself as a major world power (more very good EU-related jokes about subsidizing allies). The party system as we know it also got under way during her reign (even more topical references to draw out). She was indeed the most successful member of the House of Stuart.
Queen Anne is playing in repertory with Love For Love at the Swan Theatre, so we looked forward to the same cast members. The two leading parts, Emma Cunniffe as Queen Anne and Natascha McElhone as Sarah Churchill are only in Queen Anne.
The bawdy start: Swift seated on the front left, Harley on the right
The play opens with a bawdy satirical song, sung in the Inns of Court with most of the non-royal males present. Queen Anne is lampooned in drag, by a man wearing a primitive bulging breasted and tummied fat suit. This was the era of grotesque political satires and ballads. It’s a Men Only occasion (with whores) and they’re disturbed by the arrival of Abigail Hill (Beth Park), seeking employment. Abigail is poor, but related both to Speaker of The House of Commons, Robert Harley (Jonathan Broadbent) and to Sarah Churchill. She is teased by Jonathan Swift (Tom Turner) … I’m afraid that we do have Jonathan Swift, Daniel Defoe and John Radcliffe present, though they do avoid the Monty Python Mrs Mozart / Mrs Beethoven syndrome, but only just. This is a crucial setting scene as all the males are enjoying bawdy satire, and she is isolated and … well, “Harrassed.” Robert Harley agrees to get her to see Sarah Churchill, who will place her with the queen. There are four of these Inns of Court song sequences in the play … and they really enliven action, especially The Grand Old Duke of Marlborough sequence.
The central story is Anne, an invalid after seventeen pregnancies, and with gout as well, and her relationship with the Queen Bee Sarah Churchill, the 1702 version of the High School Movie bitch. It starts just before Anne becomes queen. Her brother-in-law William III has a perfect Dutch accent and is an aggressive so and so, while her cuddly sweet ineffectual husband (he first appears in a nightshirt and cap), Prince George of Denmark, has a perfect Danish accent. Jonathan Swift, once he’s finished taking the mickey by pretending to be Robert Harley, is Irish. Otherwise, they’re all RP. No “whatever accent you feel like.” Every accent has a purpose. Full marks.
It wasn’t just the War of Spanish Succession that had succession at the fore. Anne’s claim to the throne was weaker than that of her step-brother, James Stuart, the Old Pretender, a Catholic, waiting in France. The government was determined to ensure a Protestant succession by nominating Sophie of Hanover as next in line (and her son George became George I on Anne’s death). The politics revolves around this. The Churchills are Whigs, a mainly nonconformist grouping intent on ensuring Protestant succession. They’re led by Sydney Godolphin (Richard Hope), Sarah and John Churchill’s close friend. Their rivals, the Tories, are mainly Anglican. The Tories are led by Robert Harley, an outstandingly manipulative character played by Jonathan Broadbent. Harley gives us much of the humour in the play. They all vie to influence the Queen. This Queen Anne is physically ill, exhausted, gentle, put upon, easily persuaded and too trusting of Sarah Churchill.
Queen Anne left, Sarah Churchill right
While the Churchills, Godolphin and Harley fight it out politically (manipulating the pamphleteers with their rude ballads), the real focus is on the three women. Sarah Churchill rules. It’s a third form pash that’s gone on too long, but still deeply hurtful to poor Anne. It’s in that “I’m your best friend not her” mode that even little girls can fall into as soon as they get to school. Sarah, while bullying Anne mercilessly, fears the influence of Abigail Hill, now Anne’s maid, empting the night soil pots. Because Anne is a such sweety, Abigail (pushed by her cousin, Robert Harley) can influence her towards peace settlement with tales of men wounded in war. Sarah wrongly suspects a full blown lesbian relationship and has Arthur Maynwearing write a ballad about it.
Abigail Hill (Beth Park)
The play ends, as people fall in and out of favour, with Sarah announcing “But I was the most important woman in England.” And she was. The genetic combination of her brains and manipulative prowess with Marlborough’s military prowess clearly popped up again in their descendant, Sir Winston Churchill.
Sarah Churchill background, Anne foreground
Assessment time. It’s a modern play, costumed and set in 1702. The language tries mainly to reflect the era. It’s been given the accolade of presentation at the RSC with a hugely accomplished cast. Because it’s sitting in a Shakespearean space it runs to 2 hours 35 minutes, as most plays here do. It felt that long. I know three hour plays that fly by as if half the length, and I know 80 minute plays that plod along to feel much longer. This felt like the full 2 hours 35 minutes, and I think an astute 10 minute shaving would benefit it. The use of high speed diagonal entrances and exits is a Swan Theatre given, and executed well. Coming out, we heard two people comparing it to the RSC’s Wolf Hall. Only to the degree that it’s a historical story in costume at Shakespearean length. I thought Queen Anne was considerably better than Wolf Hall as a play … I much preferred the book and the TV series to the play. Though we saw Wolf Hall in London on a proscenium stage in a theatre that was far, far too big for it. But Wolf Hall had a bitty disconnected quality, and Queen Anne flowed.
The construction has us hear about Anne well before we meet her. First there’s the crude lampoon on her pregnancies and illnesses, then we hear Sarah speak disparagingly about her. That works well. The script was clear, witty and had enough sly topical references to draw knowing laughs, but I winced at a few lines here and there, particularly Goldolphin (I don’t have the script) leaving Sarah and the General on the four poster bed (it’s central to the set throughout) and saying “You’re a lucky man, Marlborough” (or “Marlborough, you’re a lucky man!) I thought it a hearty cliché too far. Similarly the (brilliant) Jonathan Broadbent has been given a repeated sit com tag line, “Yes … no … perhaps.” Very funny, but it was getting forced … my immediate reaction was, when you get to the last one, do “Mmm (yes intonation) … Mmm (no intonation) … Mmm? (question intonation). There was at least one example too many.
Anne in black after Prince George’s death. Robert Harley behind- recently promoted to chief minister.
The three women were perfectly cast physically, and all three gave wonderful performances. Emma Cunniffe is singled out for “person of the match” award because playing Anne, who is ill, wet, sweet, not too bright, and led by a sense of duty, is a major task, perfectly performed. She also has that magic “can’t take your eyes off her” charisma in the role.
As in all “rep” productions of two plays some people get only cameos here … I’m thinking of Tom Turner’s Tom Swift, delightfully taken. I’d say Robert Cavanah as John, Duke of Marlborough and Jonathan Broadbent as Robert Harley are the two largest male roles. Both impeccable.
Driving home in heavy rain, the Oxford ring road rang bells. A sign to Blenheim Palace here … the huge palace the Churchill family built, and a sign to the Radcliffe Infirmary there … named after Queen Anne’s physician in this play, charged with changing her gouty bandages.
Prince George of Denmark
The play got me interested in reading more about Queen Anne … her life is ripe for a prequel, as her part in the 1688 invasion that got rid of James II is fascinating, as is her lifelong attachment to Sarah Churchill. It must have been a hard (but wise) decision to start with the drama of 1702. A prequel title? Princess Anne (which she was) is a bit risky considering the present lady with that title.
FOUR STARS ****
Michael Billington, Guardian – 4 stars
Domenic Cavendish, Daily Telegraph – 4 stars
Jane Edwards, Sunday Times … 4 stars
Usual high standard. The timeline renders a synopsis pointless, so there isn’t one. As there’s so much white space on the cast bios, I’d go up one point in size. The photos of actors months before the production are the front cover as usual. They have Sarah Churchill at the top, Anne below. Given the title, that’s the wrong way round.
Love For Love by William Congreve, Swan Theatre 2015
NATALIE ABRAHAMI, director
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Headlong, 2011
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