Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 23 January 2016
Now the train service from London to Stratford on Avon is so feeble that you have to stay over, each visit you end up with the play you’ve gone to see and “the other one”. Sometimes that’s great: Jasper Britton’s Jew of Malta – infinitely superior to Anthony Sher’s Willy Loman – and Queen Anne, by Helen Edmundson, is also a box of dirty delights.
For a period in history of which I had almost no knowledge, I found it wildly entertaining and equally informative – excellent on the personal relationship between Anne and Sarah Churchill and also enjoyed Anne’s bewildered inability to distinguish between Whigs and Tories as party politics emerge for the first time. I think I might have dozed through the Act of Union with Scotland but that hardly mattered.
It’s enormously difficult to do any post-Elizabethan drama, let alone one pitched theatrically midway between Shakespeare and Congreve without a hint of Blackadder. There is what Nursie would have called ‘an amount of royal breasticular frottage’ but nothing too overt to illustrate the ‘close fondness’ of the Queen for her favourite Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough, a manipulative power behind the throne and arguably the first ‘woman politician’.
As every schoolboy knows, Queen Anne was famous for her legs. Although we might have meant those supporting a table or piano, much reference is made to Anne’s own painful gout-ridden limbs pocked with pungent ulcerating sores from ankle to gusset that it’s hard to imagine how Hywel Morgan’s Prince George could bear to part them sufficiently often to make her seventeen times pregnant.
Jodhi May was originally cast as Anne but left the production citing ‘artistic differences’ or possibly a distaste for this actual game of thrones, and now RSC stalwart Emma Cunniffe has made the role perfectly her own. She and Natascha McElhone as Sarah Churchill play glossily off each other – McElhone iced, grand and self-confident until tricked and tripped by her own politicking, Cunniffe graduating from a weary, pious victim to the men in her court to girlishly playful then risingly assertive and imperious when she feels betrayed or challenged.
Because we are in the age of the pamphleteers, the first social media activists commenting on politics, Edmundson stages their publications as satirical musical turns in the style of a restoration comedy, where Michael Fenton Stevens’ Dr Radcliffe and somewhat cartoonified Jonathan Swift (Carl Prekopp) and Daniel Defoe (Tom Turner) enjoy themselves hugely in knockabout tavern scenes.
Unlike Queen Anne’s reign, it’s a bit long. But also good.
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