Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – until 30 September 2017
At this RSC production, I was sat in front of two women who seemed be in a war of oneupmanship with constant corrections and this odd sense of tension (oddly only broken when they agreed The Wind in the Willows was terrible the fortnight before). Helen Edmundson’s play is a study in humanity’s need for dominance, especially as much as it is a historical romp.
Romp we do! With the production opening with a song and dance number about Anne’s weight and yet another unsuccessful pregnancy. It is very reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Globe’s Nell Gwynn and that is the issue with this production everything it does feels reminiscent of recent productions. The bawdiness of Gwynn, the homage to Shakespeare is as much an homage to King Charles III and there’s even glimpses of Mr Foote’s Other Leg, but instead of Benjamin Franklin we get a glimpse into the world of Jonathan Swift.
These are minor problems in a solid story of Queen Anne’s reign as we witness the rise of woman who is quick to play the fool but manages to block any attempts to take away her right to throne. Emma Cunniffe returns to the title role in this transfer to London from Stratford Upon Avon and strikes the tone of naivety and determination, dominated by the sadness of 17 pregnancies ending in failure she throws all her maternal instinct into the monarchy and all that love into her intense relationship with Romola Garai’s Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. In any other world Churchill would be Queen Bee instead she resents that beauty and wit is usurped by Queen Anne’s direct line to God. What follows over the next 2 hours and 45 minutes is a rivalry that would put Betty and Joan to shame.
Theatre rarely shows women at war like this, the obvious comparison is Jean Genet’s The Maids, but it has to vie for the attention of the audience amongst Act of Unions (many laughs as how the Scottish are untrustworthy and aren’t England’s allies), the rise of uncensored satire, Anne’s fanatical Protestantism, bordering on Catholicism and the shadow of Jacobite rebellions, which support her half-brother’s claim to the throne and her relationship with Parliament, who killed her grandfather.
The plain wood panel set by Hannah Clark is in contrast to her lavish costume design but suits the play’s many scenes with the many scene changes and Natalie Abrahami skilled direction makes these set changes feel far less tedious than they should. Aided by Charles Balfour’s mix of candle and modern lighting this production feels like it could be at home in the Sam Wanamaker. The two female leads give great performances, Garai’s sycophantic necessity combined with contempt and Cuniffe’ss naturally ruthless streak with undercurrents of naivety play well against each other but this feels very much a strong ensemble work rather than a play dominated by its leads, with Beth Park, James Garnon and Richard Hope providing great support as Abigail Hill, Robert Hrley and Sydney Godolphin who become the Queen’s confidants when Churchill lets her down and Chu Omambala as John Churchill who become a pawn in the game Anne and Sarah play.
This is a strong work from Edmundson and though it’s casting choices (which I loved) may seem controversial to some older patrons (with one woman commenting “Orange is the New Black” regarding Dave Fishley as William III) this is exactly the sort of traditional storytelling the Theatre Royal Haymarket should be showcasing.