Thursday, 13 July 2017

Review Queen Anne

Francis Beckett delights in a play on Britain's last Stuart monarch which is both perceptive about its two real-life heroines and a tremendous theatrical success. 

Queen Anne
by Helen Edmundson

A Right Royal Drama

Queen Anne was in many ways a tragic figure.  She had seventeen pregnancies, but gave birth to only three live children, none of whom lived beyond the age of eleven. Her biographer Anne Somerset writes in the theatre programme that she was “poorly educated, chronically shy and disabled by agonising arthritic attacks.”

She did her best nonetheless to fulfil the duties imposed on her by the iron laws of heredity, and to cope with the vigorous and vitriolic political atmosphere of the time.

Indeed, Helen Edmundson’s play opens with a guilty pleasure, an appallingly hurtful but hilarious satirical song about her inability to have children. This has her trying to deliver a child, but delivering only something unnamed which apparently rhymes with art.

The drama focusses on her relationship with Sarah, wife of John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, from whom Sir Winston Churchill was descended. Sarah was the opposite of Anne: clever, beautiful, confident, ambitious. The two were the closest of friends, then the bitterest of enemies.

This tense, tightly written and tautly plotted play charts their relationship. Its respect for the known facts would surely win the approval of Hilary Mantel, but it also weaves them into a gripping yet often very funny play.

From the start we are on the side of the needy and manipulative Anne, yet never cease to care about what happens to the brave and manipulative Sarah, whose sophisticated political antennae seem to abandon her after the death of her son.

The script has not a single unnecessary word in it – nothing is spelled out if it can be left to the audience to work it out – and Natalie Abrahami’s direction in this RSC production reflects that economy. Hannah Clark’s set is splendid yet discreet. It knows its place. It is there to supplement the dialogue, not substitute for it.

Yet it is the two central performances on which the evening stands or falls - Emma Cunniffe’s Anne and Romola Garai’s Sarah -  and they are both wonderful.

Cunniffe and Garai capture both the humanity and the political power struggle in a way that easily stands comparison with Mark Rylance’s Cromwell in Mantel's Wolf Hall.

This is one of the best and most gripping evenings in the theatre I can remember for a long time. That's not just because I know a little of the history. For I took with me a South African cousin who knew nothing of Queen Anne, and she was as gripped by the human and political drama as I was. A green light to rush to the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

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