Richard Lutz reviews a play about a tormented innocent in a court of vipers…
We all have a flimsy grasp on kings and queens.
There’s William the Conquerer. We know him because he bashed the Anglo-Saxons and and made us speak French.
There’s Richard the Lionheart and we know him because he had a lion’s heart. And there’s Henry VIII because he was out of his tree and had a tendency to kill his wives.
But after that, it can get a bit hazy. More specifically, I would say, except for a piece of furniture or two and a bit of lace, not many folks know about Queen Anne.
She ruled from 1702 until 1714 and in that time had to contend with deeply insoluble divisions in the newly minted United Kingdom. There was Catholic versus Protestant, there was the dying Stuart dynasty versus Continental families entering the royalty, and there was the sudden upsurge of a Parliament getting to grips with fledgling democracy that was to keep a monarch firmly in his or her box with the Bill of Rights.
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Queen Anne at its Swan Theatre in Stratford shows the fraught, unhappy queen as torn between two deeply intimate relations with a pair of women; one Sarah Churchill, soon to become the Duchess of Marlborough and first owner (with her husband) of Blenheim Palace, and Abigail Hill, a low born handmaiden who marries well.
The queen is a tormented innocent swayed this way and that who confides in both friends. As she does with the Leader of the House, her chancellor and the Duke of Marlborough, who’s on the Continent fighting both France and Spain.
What makes this play fascinating is, like Anne, the audience is never sure just who is honest and who is contemptible. All seem venal, greedy and shifty as they swirl around the decent new queen who has to contend with the death of more than a dozen of her children. The queen, ill and out of her depth, has to also deal with blackmail, deceit and power games.
Emma Cunniffe portrays Queen Anne with an air of a simple soul who just cannot believe people could be so deceitful as she hangs on the obsessive vestiges of her love for the Duchess. Natascha McElhone gets the conniving self centred Duchess just right and there is a great turn from actor Jonathan Broadbent as the Janus-faced Robert Harley, leader of the Commons, a man so sneaky that at times it seems he doesn’t know what he stands for.
There is also an unintended current joke running through this play, which provided a laugh or two, as the newly formed Tories criticise a long-running foreign war that is for no purpose and costs too much. Hmmm.
Production values are superb, the directing spot on and it acts as a definitive foil for the Congreve play Love for Love which takes place in the 1690s, uses the same actors and is staged at The Swan in tandem with this solid new play by writer Helen Edmundson
Tickets: 01789 403493. Until 23rd January.