Queen and Country;
Sisterhood and Betrayal
I was out of the country when Helen Edmunson’s new play Queen Anne, commissioned and produced by the
Royal Shakespeare Company opened and so I finally caught up with it only at the very end of December. It has had much praise by critics and audiences and, for me, this praise is largely deserved. Edmdunson’s script—like last year’s Oppenheimer, also a commission of the RSC—is an historic recreation. In this case, I felt it came across less as a piece of innovative theatre like Oppenheimer and more like a strong BBC costume drama. But it is none the worse for that!
The play is not simply workmanlike, though it’s certainly that too. It tells with both feeling and understanding the personally interesting and historically important story of the friendship between the initially shy and insecure Princess Anne Stuart and the ambitious, glamorous Sarah Churchill. It also covers the complicated, sometimes vicious, politics of the period in ways that make this era come alive. The historic characters (including Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift) are convincingly drawn, and the moments of send-up that reflect the growth of the satiric pamphlets, newspapers and cartoons of the period add welcome wit and theatricality. There are moments of satiric musical interludes as well that are worthy of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera and very much in that vein.The design by Hannah Clark enhances the play’s context. Natalie Abrahami deserves praise for her directing of the ensemble. She keeps the action moving; her pacing of the quieter scenes and of the development of the breach between Anne and Sarah strikes all the right emotional notes, indicating the feelings and motivations of both women. Above all, there is not a dud performance anywhere in the evening. Jonathan Broadbent’s Robert Harley and Beth Park in the role of the favourite who replaces Sarah, the redoubtable Mrs. Masham, are memorable and the characterizations have a vividness that both explains the background history and also creates a thirst for that fine book about this reign, Queen Anne, by Anne Somerset.
Above all, both Emma Cunniffe as the perpetually sickly, gout-ridden Anne (who experienced 17 pregnancies but left no heir) and Natascha McElhone as the beautiful, supremely confident, ambitious and ultimately thwarted (and increasingly self-destructive) Sarah Churchill, embody their characters and make one feel yes, this is what they must have been like, this is how it must have developed between them. The play does not shy away from the erotic possibilities between the women but, like the film Carol, their implied lesbianism is not really the point. At its heart, the play is about the clash between the expediencies of politics or public responsibilites and personal desires; the fine line between healthy ambition and self-serving corrupt determination; and also about friendship and betrayal.
One of the finest aspects of the play is the way the women and their relationship grow, develop and shift until Anne becomes not only her own woman but a real, intelligent and morally centred Queen, while Sarah is engulfed by her own ego, her venal goals and her self-aggrandizing view of her role and her powers.
There was certainly a power-couple relationship between Sarah and John Churchill (well-played by Robert Cavanah), the first Duke of Marlborough who was a military genius in British history as important as the Duke of Wellington. Nevertheless, advancement in the early days depended on patronage. How Sarah’s relationship with Anne helped John in the early days of his career is beautifully played, and the role that eroticism plays for that couple is mirrored strongly by Anne’s quasi-erotic fascination with Sarah, something the knowing and sometimes smug Duchess uses with real guile to manipulate her friend.
The play makes one reconsider the reign of the last of the Stuarts who presided over a difficult period when the throne was often unstable, the wars were costly but seen as necessary, the Parliament was consolidating its constitutional rights and the succession was very much in question. The story pretty clearly delineates the struggle between the Whigs and the Tories
and their machinations to win Anne’s support. If you become interested in the actual history behind this play, you could start background reading not only with Anne Somerset’s book but also by reading William Makepeace Thackeray’s neglected but masterful and totally fascinating novel, The History of Henry Esmond. It is a brilliant book unfairly overshadowed these days by another of his great novels, Vanity Fair.
As entertaining and informative in its own more circumscribed way as the Thackeray novel (a three-hour play cannot quite do the work of a novel of several hundred pages but it still sketches out a great deal of the background material), Queen Anne is a good start for contemplating not only the politics and difficulties of this era in English history but also the complex friendship of two women that began as mutually beneficial and supportive but ended as bitter and destructive because of the way the two developed and played off one another.
Above all, it is captivating theatre. Watching the growth of Anne’s character as she responds to the necessities of being Queen and observing the over-reaching of Sarah as she becomes too self-confident and too convinced that she is the real power in the land remains fulfilling drama. I hope a proposed transfer to the West End in London comes off. If for no other reason, it’s worth seeing for the superb performances of Cunniffe, McElhone, and Park as the three central figures in the triangle of female relationships. It’s also worth noting that Anne’s great ambitions as Queen were to end the wars with France and to have Scotland join the United Kingdom; both hopes were achieved before her death. She also wanted a Protestant succession and, with her death, the throne passed to the Hanovers. I think that the RSC-commissioned plays promise to become a welcome tradition, both theatrically and educationally.
Queen Anne will run in repertoire until 23 January 2016 at the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon, and probably transfer to the West End in London after that.