The Royal Shakespeare Company (unsurprisingly) seeks to connect 'Shakespeare's world' with the modern day in its choice of production. As Shakespeare's writing essentially encapsulates the human condition, this is not much of a constraint.
"We might consider how a new production of Hamlet or King Lear could reflect the political realities of our own world, or how a fresh look at Christopher Marlowe's Dr Faustus might tell us something new about Shakespeare's world." Erica Whyman, Deputy Artistic Director
Queen Anne, in theory, fits perfectly into this historical/modern milieu. The new writing by Helen Edmundson (The Heresy of Love, Swallows and Amazons) details the political intricacies and tensions behind Queen Anne's reign, beginning with the last days of William of Orange. Starring Natasha McElhone (of The Truman Show fame) as Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough and Emma Cunniffe (Doctor Who, Agatha Christie) as Queen Anne, the impetus behind the play follows the intense relationship between the two women. Famously strong-willed and biting, Sarah Churchill enjoyed an extraordinarily close relationship with the Queen, acting as Keeper of the Privy Purse and Groom of the Stole after Anne's coronation (on the 23rd of April, imbibing the Shakespearean spirit). Anne was infatuated with her friend, overwhelming her with love and promises, in both action and writing.
Broadly speaking, the political background of the play follows the newly emerging - and warring - factions of the Whigs and Tories. Lord Godolphin and the Duchess and Duke of Marlborough form the Whig brigade, and Robert Harley, speaker at the House of Commons, represents the Tories. The process of coercion and spin upon the crown begins with the arrival of an Abigail Hill, cousin of both Sarah and Robert, impoverished and seeking employment. In summation, the play follows Anne's ascension from Whig political (and particularly Sarah Churchill's) puppet to autonomous leader, refusing to pledge her allegiance to any party. And this is all in the shadow of the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14).
Historical as opposed to innovative, it is in essence a period drama. Though, as my frank friend remarks, at least it feels like we're learning. We spend the interval double checking the validity of the characters and events, just to make sure we're learning correctly. We are. For example, we learn about the beginnings of Blenheim Palace. Built for the Duke of Marlborough as a reward for his military efforts, it was also within the excessively ornate walls of the Oxfordshire country house that the Duke lost his good graces with the Queen (through a little tacit money-laundering). As original theatre, there is nothing especially striking in the creative interpretation. For a play so intent on exploring the relationships of powerful women, there is a pervasive lack of nuance in the complexities of the Anne and Sarah's relationship. As the dynamic shifts and Anne finds her feet as Queen, we see in the Duchess of Marlborough a woman slowly falling apart, alongside her waning influence. Once the Queen achieves independence, Sarah Churchill devolves into an egotistical teenager, ranting about her memoirs. Their particular relationship may be singular, but the intricacies and tensions in female friendships are universal and warrant subtlety, not merely a climax of almost hysterical screaming at the severing of the relationship. As it stands, it serves simply to feed into an archaic representation of women in power that the play - as a representation of one of Britain's strongest female monarchs - ostensibly seeks to step away from.
Emma Cuncliffe and Natasha McElhone both attempt to break out of the constraints of their subsequent characters. McElhone does not quite reach Lady Macbeth heights in her portrayal of Sarah, but we see flickers of a mastermind at work, quickly quashed by a churlish selfishness. Cuncliffe is less volatile in her portrayal of the pitiable ruler, but she accumulates a quiet force as the play progresses, as well as real humour in her blind love for her childish husband.
In terms of form, it is clearly in keeping with RSC's and the general Stratford aesthetic, historical theatre belonging, at least in terms of public consensus, to Shakespeare. Yet the magic of Shakespeare lies in the human universals he reveals. Regardless of sex, class, status, context, he uncovers aspects of the human condition instantly understandable to all. And Edmundson's play fails to deliver on this front. This may not seem like a fair accusation, after all, it is tantamount to simply accusing Queen Anne of not being written by Shakespeare. What I mean to query is the lack of imagination. The play comes from a twentieth century mind masquerading as an eighteenth century psyche, rather than utilising the knowledge we've gained in the last three hundred years. It doesn't offer an insight into our own modern day realities, nor does the story necessarily have enough entertainment value to hold its own. There is always a danger in representing the general tedium of a retold history.
That being said, there are some shining moments, particularly the early eighteenth century meandering between the public and the private. The entertaining 'Grub Street' respites, for example, offer satiric summations of the scenes just staged. We are treated to a slightly shaky-accented Jonathan Swift incarnation, who is particularly good at portraying the sardonic Swift-isms worthy of the writer of 'The Lady's Dressing Room'. Incidentally, for those interested in early eighteenth century satire, there is a fantastic rebuttal to Swift by Mary Montagu, an acerbically witty poet, entitled 'The Reasons that Induced Dr. S. to write a Poem called The Lady's Dressing Room'. Reminiscent in many ways of the Greek chorus, these ditties allow a second and self-conscious layer of interpretation, giving the audience space to appreciate the farcical nature of all governmental realities, the 'political theatre'. However, this power weakens considerably when this narrative instrument begins to bleed into plot; a maliciously seditious song becoming the focus of the second half.
The play finishes on a final crescendo in which the Duchess and Duke of Marlborough are estranged, and about leave for Europe. Anne is alone, but seemingly secure, and - it seems - about to call the long-drawn out war to an end. Blenheim has (I think) been built. Harley has become Chancellor of the Exchequer. Abigail, the Duchess Masham. We leave, having learnt.