This Royal Shakespeare Company smash hit, which has just transferred to London’s West End, explores the troubled life of Queen Anne during a time of political turmoil
The British Monarchy is rightly proud of its powerful queens, but not all have been cut from the same self-composed, dignified and resourceful cloth as the renowned Elizabeth I, or our reigning monarch. British playwright Helen Edmondson’s delightful historical play, revived in the West End following its 2015 run at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon, deals with the little-known – but not historically insignificant – reign of Anne Stuart, granddaughter to the beheaded King Charles I.
When the chronically shy Anne was crowned Queen of England in 1702 following the death of William III, she was deemed ill-equipped to deal with the political turmoil in a country still reeling both religiously and politically from Henry VIII’s Reformation. The daughter of the unpopular Catholic King James II and brother to the Young Pretender to the throne, Anne had been raised a Protestant, yet suspicion surrounding her succession remained, compounded by the fact she was both poorly educated and in poor health – the latter the result of losing 17 children.
Queen Anne at the London Royal Haymarket
But Queen Anne’s strength as a production lies not in its presentation of this political consternation but in, instead, distilling it through the relationship between two powerful women – the Queen and her closest friend Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. The at-first feeble Anne, played with pathos by Emma Cuncliffe, winces with each painful step. She is both world-weary and wearying to be around.
But as she begins to find her voice following her coronation, Anne’s relationship with her friend soon sours. Famed for her beauty and intelligence, Sarah Churchill is perfectly embodied by one of Britain’s finest actresses, Romola Garai.
All tumbling golden ringlets and acerbic remarks, in Garai’s glowing portrayal it’s hard to wholly dislike the conniving Sarah. She resents that her superior intelligence and strength are not enough to rival those born to a higher status. And her frustrated rant steers dangerously towards Republicanism.
The unravelling of Sarah’s manipulative relationship with the emotionally needy Anne plays out as a fascinating study of female friendship. This is particularly interesting in a realm where the personal is always political.
A laugh-out-loud history lesson
It’s a delight to watch, too, as Garai sashays in glorious scarlet garbs in contrast to Anne’s drab attire. The pair emotionally joust and jab at each other as politicking and personal tragedy take their toll. The emotional heart of the play is regularly punctuated by beautifully choreographed and performed drinking songs. Raucous, rude and full of the biting satire for which the age was known, these ditties are a laugh-out-loud way to provide context without resorting to a history lesson, convey the power of pamphlettering and the great British tradition of poking fun at one’s superiors. Satirist and Gulliver’s Travels’s author Jonathan Swift even makes an appearance.
But just as a scurrilous rumour threatens to ruin Anne’s reputation, the troubled queen finds courage against almost insurmountable opposition. She might not have been our greatest queen but this well-crafted play shows her strengths. It finds in her extraordinary predicament an underestimated and abused woman who we can’t help but quietly admire.
Queen Anne runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 30 September.