As well-versed as I am in history, I confess that prior to this play, when it came to knowing about Britain post-King James II’s reign, I wasn’t quite as au fait on the subject. Of course, that has now changed. RSC’s Queen Anne, which is currently touring, is fascinating for a number of reasons.
Proof that history is stranger than fiction, there are definitely Shakespearean themes within the dynamics of historical figures in Queen Anne. Also, even though the play’s wider canvas covers the northern European states versus the southern, at its heart Queen Anne is about the relationships of three women whose actions reach far beyond their inner circle.
Written by Helen Edmundson and directed by Natalie Abrahami, Queen Anne takes place in a world that in many ways isn’t so different from our known. Royalty and senior figures are subject to public scrutiny and ridicule, MPs make “regrettable comments” and there’s much speculation with about England’s future with Scotland. Queen Anne’s tragic misfortune with all her children dying at birth or in their later years has the English court jittery. Without a living heir, Parliament looks overseas to a distant cousin of Anne to be the British monarch in the event of her death.
Anne is understandably despondent. Seventeen children dead, her fertility the subject of coarse gossip and political maneuvering behind her back, Anne feels ostracised, alone. Her husband George is some comfort, but where she thinks finds true solace is with her lifelong ‘friend’, Sarah Churchill (Romola Garai), the Duchess of Marlborough, and during the days when Anne is infirm and depressed, Sarah’s the de facto power behind the throne. The arrival of Abigail Hill (Beth Park) – a relation of both Sarah and Robert Harley, the Tory Speaker of the Commons – sparks a series of changes with the status quo. Sarah is incensed that her position in court has been ‘usurped’ – not unlike Iago’s anger at Cassio for ‘stealing’ Othello’s ‘affection’ away from him. The fact that the Tories now have the ear of the Queen compounds Sarah’s exasperation, prompting her to act out of character, crossing a line that reeks of political unsoundness…
Garai is, as you would expect is eminently watchable as the acerbic Duchess of Marlbough, using measured words in public but incendiary with her scorn in private. In her eyes forever propping up a ‘weak, cloying’ woman with ‘unnatural appetites’, Sarah’s practical, quick-thinking mind makes her a natural at leadership and her position at the beginning of the play justified. Sarah’s speech later in the play regarding the true worth and ‘royalty’ of a person being their natural abilities rather than their station at birth, is one of the great speeches for republicanism. However, like most things with within the play, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are relative terms and the Duchess of Marlborough’s estimation of herself borders on hubris…
Cunniffe has arguably a harder time playing the eponymous Queen. Naturally pious and reluctant to intially make decisve decisions, her persona is million miles away from a strong, empowered women in the past who have ruled England directly or indirectly (Elizabeth I, Margaret of Anjou). However, it becomes evident that she has other qualities that make her a suitable monarch – more so by today’s standards: conciliatory, considered, empathetic. What Cuniffe does is convey a very real, three- dimensional woman who digs deep to overcome her grief, infirmity and others’ malicious gossip – and as history would attest, would later become the architect of the political union of England and Scotand, bumping up Britain’s status within Europe to one of the ‘Great Powers’.
Park’s Abigail Hill is third of the ‘triumvirate’ and even though she’s the ‘lowest’ of the three women in terms of status, she’s the other side of the coin to the Duchess of Marlborough. Both women don’t put Queen Anne on a pedastal, but while Sarah can’t condone the monarch for having ‘feet of clay’, Abigail sees Anne’s sensitive nature and apolitical inclinations as a boon, not a burden. The fact that Abigail finds the Queen more approachable than her own politically-savvy cousin speaks volumes and a catalyst for the events in the second half.
It has been said that if women ruled the world, there wouldn’t be all the problems the patriarchal powers perpetuate. What this play shows is a lone woman in power who embraces the traditional ‘feminine’ qualities when in power is often beset on all sides for being ‘weak’ and impractical. As shown within the three main female roles, women aren’t all the same and for some in the political arena, friendship, empathy and loyalty are less important virtues than the will to act and political ‘clarity’. When close ties and solidarity are sacrificed for political expediency, it is a lose-lose situation for all…
© Michael Davis 2017
Queen Anne runs at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 30th September 2017.