Queen Anne is set to open at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket later this month. We sit down with playwright Helen Edmundson, who discusses female power and relationships, themes that are central to the play.
The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Queen Anne, originally opened at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2015, explores the life of one of England’s little-known sovereigns and her intimate friendship with her childhood confidante Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough. We sat down with playwright Helen Edmundson to discuss her inspiration for the work and the central themes of the play.
What is the play about and what are the main themes of the play?
The play is about power and different versions of power: female power, male power, how we exert power and what we do with it. It is also about the power of the people and that delicate three way dance that goes on with the ever changing balance of power between monarchy, government and the people.
History recalls Anne as “an obese, gout-stricken ‘Brandy Nan’” – but who really was Queen Anne?
History has been very unfair to queen Anne. I think because outwardly she wasn’t prepossessing; by the time she became Queen she was overweight, she was unwell. It’s now thought that she had some very serious illnesses that these days would have been diagnosed and treated quite quickly, so this idea of her being gouty and having a drink problem is really very unfair. It’s likely Anne had something called Hughes syndrome, which is a disease of the immune system and which has some connections with lupus. It is this illness that would have led to her having all the miscarriages and problems with the children that she did manage to deliver. It also meant that Anne was very disabled and in constant pain with both joint pain and poor circulation. In terms of how she is presented to the world, the things that ambassadors and Sarah Churchill wrote about her seem to suggest that she was a rather greedy, overfed and foolish woman.
I don’t think she was particularly well educated but she had a very strong faith and a growing understanding of political affairs and also an instinctive understanding for how to look after the people and what the people needed. She was the first monarch to truly take on board or understand that for a monarch to reign most effectively, the monarch needs to do it in partnership with the people and thereby also with parliament. After the restoration, Charles II had to pay lip service to this idea of ruling with parliament’s consent and ruling in partnership but he never really embraced it, and James II went back the other way and back on a lot of the work that had been done. Anne was the first one that thought no, that actually is right, that is how the monarchy should be, so she set out to be fair minded and kind towards the people, considerate of the people, and never to suggest in some way that she was above the people. That is a really important and vital shift in the development of the monarchy, which actually comes right through to the present day. We now take for granted, in terms of our relationship with the monarchy, a lot of the things which actually began in Anne’s time.
Why is Anne an overlooked monarch?
There are lots of reasons why Anne has been overlooked, one being that she didn’t reign for a very long time and also there was nothing really about her for people to latch onto – unlike Elizabeth I, who reigned for a very long time and was very striking with an aura around her and the image of the Virgin Queen. Anne felt a lot less glamorous and she was very damaged by what Sarah Churchill went on to write about her. Particularly in Victorian times, the perception of Anne was very much coloured by the things Sarah wrote in her memoirs, where she implied that Anne was interminably dull, had no great intellect and was just a political pawn. For a time that was the received wisdom about Anne and now in the last 30 years maybe that people have started to look at her afresh and recognise her for the things she did. She attended more cabinet meetings than any other monarch, she always wanted to know what was going on. As her reign went on she became better and better at making her own decisions and where she stood on political matters. She was really very different to how Sarah portrayed her.
Why did you choose to look at Queen Anne? How did she inspire you?
I really wanted to write a play about power. I was looking for powerful women and the Duchess of Marlborough inspired that, but I think the thing I really got inspired by was that there was this seemingly powerless women there as well in Anne. The story itself is so dramatic, and I realised that I could play the two of them off against one another showing the story of their friendship and how the tables are turned and then how it breaks down.
What is the importance of Queen Anne in the history of the monarchy?
Anne was really the first person who shifted the idea of ruling by divine right to one who rules with the permission of the people. This sense of duty to the people really begins with Anne, that idea of serving dutifully, this would have been a very momentous shift.
How do you think Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, exerted so much power over Anne?
Sarah was a very highly intelligent and charming woman. When Anne met Sarah she was a child and Sarah was five years older. I think they met around the time that Anne was 10 or 11 and she, in the way that young people do, sort of idolised Sarah because here was someone that was 15 or 16, extremely beautiful, very quick witted and a glamorous woman, someone who Anne hoped she would one day be but never really would become. I think that Anne had a bit of a passion for Sarah, a crush on her to an extent. Sarah was very protective of Anne for many years before she became Queen. Sarah did champion Anne and made the case for Anne being given more money to support a household when she was a princess. She stood up against William and Mary when they came over and took the throne. I think Anne really truly loved Sarah and Sarah did a great deal for her, but it was only after Anne became Queen that really threw their relationship. It was difficult for Sarah to take on the shift in their relationship and she responded very badly to it. Sarah was naturally dominant and to be suddenly subservient and watch Anne take more possession and grow into her role as queen was something Sarah did not take well. It’s sad really as there was such a history of care and support but then it breaks down spectacularly.
What does the play say about female friendship and relationships?
The play acknowledges the depth of feeling in friendship. I think with female friendship we are attuned to the slightest little shifts, every little tiny thing we notice about what the other feels about each other. I think that is true of Anne and Sarah, every little word they said to each other there were layers of things coded within it. We get to know one another so well in strong friendships but that can sometimes become a problem because if things start to go wrong the pain and feeling of loss and feelings of jealously can be so intense – all of these things were in play in Sarah and Anne’s relationship
The play centres around women excising power – why is this important?
I guess there aren’t enough plays that focus on women excising power. We have loads and loads of plays where we see men making the decisions and being the protagonist. There are often these powerful women in history who have been overlooked and who we may not know about because their stories weren’t recorded but who have had a huge impact on how we live. Anne was not necessarily powerful in a male sense but in a slightly different way. I think it’s great for us to explore these examples as they are very precious and important. Through Anne we can see potentially a less combative form of being powerful, she was trying to suggest there were better, fairer, more open and less aggressive ways of doing things.
How is the play relevant and timely for today’s audience?
Some of the political issues are the same; Europe and whether we should be in alliances, Scotland and whether there should be a union – it was Anne, after all, who worked really hard to bring the union about.
There are so many mirrors to the present day, in terms of things like social media, which has given a whole new level of expression for everyday people. They can’t be controlled anymore. This is similar to how it felt in Anne’s day because it was the beginning of printing, so suddenly pamphlets were being disseminated about the streets and there was a huge rise in satire, ballads and poems. Suddenly people woke up and realised that they could express themselves in new ways and there are so many parallels in terms of the political and social atmosphere of the time.
For more on Queen Anne, read our feature: Queen Anne and the Union of England and Scotland