A HALF-FORGOTTEN QUEEN RISES…
School history was terrible. Terrible! We got the Tudors, and a bore-in about the Thirty Years War, but a fog of confusion and a sense of 1066 And All That has long surrounded the Glorious Revolution, Willamanmary, the Spanish Succession, Whigs versus Tories, and why Blenheim mattered. Shamed but invigorated, I now owe much enlightenment to the RSC; this time to playwright Helen Edmundson, whose marvellous The Heresy of Love threw light on Spanish religious despotism.
Now she turns her attention to Queen Anne, associated previously by us ill-taught ignorami mainly with fine square brick mansions. Poor Anne – heir of William of Orange, daughter of the deposed Catholic James but herself a staunch Protestant – reigned only from 1702-1714, weakened by her duties and by seventeen pregnancies resulting in only one survivor; a son who grievously died at eleven. The Georges succeeded her and “Georgian” became an era of fame. We do not speak of the Age of Anne.
Yet this fascinating, strongly based reimagination of her years acknowledges a woman who, on the face of it far feebler than the great Elizabeth, held the balance in difficult times and through painful personal relationships, not least with her beloved friend Sarah, wife of the Blenheim victor John Churchill, first Earl of Marlborough. Cannily, Edmundson has us meet her first (and several times again) via satire – rampantly rude skits, songs and droopy false breasts deployed by Tom Turner as a hawkish sneering Swift, Carl Prekopp as Defoe, and Jonathan Christie as the pampheteer MP Maywaring. Her friendship with Sarah is mercilessly guyed; so we are primed when we first see her (Emma Cunniffe) dumpy and sad in a nightie as she recovers from the latest miscarriage, suffering the manipulation and power-play of her glamorous Sarah (Natascha McElhone). Future Queen and subject are more like the needy friendless schoolgirl with a crush on the dashing Head Prefect.
The development, and collapse, of this unequal friendship is the backbone of the play, with a third and equally interesting (and historically real) woman in the background: Beth Park as Abigail a poor relation introduced to the new monarch’s household as a personal maid by the scheming Sarah. Her genuine care and gentleness finally rival Duchess Sarah’s influence, to the latter’s intense rage. Some marvellous snarling insults unveil Sarah’s shallowness: excoriating Anne’s “dumb stupidity..a grub! A lump!” as she sides with Whig pamphleteers against the influence of the unprepossessing but artful Harley (Jonathan Broadbent). Emma Cunniffe’s determined, stolid dutiful growth in stature is immensely moving to watch, duty and faith oddly, poignantly recognizable even in the happier life of our own Queen.
It is thrilling and always gripping, Natalie Abrahami’s direction wonderful in pace and variation. As in The Heresy of Love, Edmundson brilliantly creates a sense of an older, historic world by using an old rhythm – a great deal of iambic pentameter – without selfconscious archaisms of speech. So these early 18c people spring violently to life before us, in their rows about money, the cost of wars, scandal and blackmail and political finagling and the fragile Act of Union (“What mean the Scots? What irks them now?” got a laugh). There is pathos, danger, character, fury (not least from McElhone when foiled). It pays tribute to an overlooked woman with Abigail’s defiant final riposte to Sarah’s mockery of the determined little Queen. “She’s kind, she’s wise, she prays and tries to do right” .
Fourteen more performances. Hope it transfers. Might go again…
http://www.rsc.org.uk to 23 January