Monarchs have long proved fertile ground for playwrights fascinated with mining the machinations of absolute power. Those that have worn the crown in those plays have usually had one thing in common – and it’s not that they all looked rather splendid in a pair of tights (although they undoubtably did).
Rulers with a Y chromosome have tended to dominate the theatrical imagination. Shakespeare wrote seven plays about just half of the kings named Henry, while Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III chronicled the reign of one that is yet to be crowned.
But with the recent popularity of the TV series Victoria and The Crown, and Helen Mirren’s portrayal of the current resident of Buckingham Palace on both stage and screen, there’s a new interest in the lives of the female monarchs who have shaped this green and sometimes pleasant land. Helen Edmundson’s new play – which has just transferred to the West End from The Swan in Stratford – is an excellent addition to the canon.
It looks at the rather less well known rule of Queen Anne, who came to power in the early 18th century. After years of ill health she is suddenly thrust upon the throne of a country at war after the untimely death of her brother-in-law, William III. But at the heart of the story is her gripping relationship with her close childhood friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough.
Sickly, brittle, and brought low by persistent childlessness after 17 pregnancies, Anne is in constant need of Sarah’s presence and affection. Sarah, sensing her dependence, uses the situation to push her own political agenda on the newly crowned Queen. But as Anne becomes more confident and forges other conflicting alliances, their friendship becomes increasingly fractious as she is torn between her instincts and her love for her childhood friend.
The balance between affection and tension between the two leads is palpable and gripping throughout. Emma Cunniffe’s Anne is meek and cowed, and it’s only with hesitancy that she begins to assert her own character. Even when she finds assurance and her voice, Cunniffe still lets you see her yearning for affection just below the surface.
Emma Cunniffe as Queen-Anne and Romola Garai as Sarah Churchill (photos by Marc Brenner)
Romola Garai is equally superb as the conniving Sarah. Her biting scorn turns to fervent desperation as the power and recognition she craves slips beyond her manipulation.
The devilishly clever plot draws many contemporary parallels. It bares witness to the corrosiveness of divisive political discourse on personal relationships, and humorously suggests that partisan party politics don’t exactly work toward the common good. At one point Anne, looking for advice on appointments, asks of one MP, “Should I not just pick the best people’. “Whoever put that notion in your head?” is the reply after a comic pregnant pause.
All the cast are first-rate. Chu Omambala’s is great as Sarah’s warring husband, as is Beth Park as Anne’s noble help Abigail. James Garnon provides light relief in his portrayal of the equivocating Speaker of the Commons.
There are no splendid royal tights on show in Queen Anne, but in every other respect this play is as regal and captivating as the best historical royal dramas. One might say it’s fit for a Queen.
Queen Anne is at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 30 September