BWW Review: QUEEN ANNE, Theatre Royal Haymarket
Game of Thrones returns this weekend, but those hungry for political machinations and manipulations can also find a feast of them in Helen Edmundson's 2015 stealth thriller about a little-known 18th-century English monarch and her courtly advisors' jockeying for position. With plenty of resonance for 2017, it's rich history with contemporary bite.
Or perhaps that should be herstory, in a refreshing RSC production featuring female leads and creatives, and a sharp eye on the ways in which women carve out influence in a male-dominated realm. Sharing some DNA with Netflix's The Crown, Edmundson's Anne (who ruled 1702-14) gradually sheds her timidity and overbearing advisors to emerge with a strong sense of agency as "mother to a nation", while former best friend Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, sees her stock tumble.
It's a gripping portrait of soft power, from the propaganda of pamphleteers to the persuasive intimacies of friendship. Words, not weapons, are mightiest here; a dismissed advisor feels the deep wound of a letter, and the shaping of opinion is vital, whether the Queen's towards particular people or causes, or the public's view of their monarch. "What are kings and queens but words?" is the radical question posed.
At the heart of the piece is the jagged, complex, sometimes highly dysfunctional bond between Anne and Sarah. Companions since childhood, they have pet names that reinforce equal status (Mrs Freeman and Mrs Morley), but there's a constant power struggle between them.
Sarah is initially the stronger - beautiful, witty, effortlessly navigating courtly intrigue, mother to a healthy son and wife of a dashing general - while a sickly Anne, who suffered 17 miscarriages, is depressive and dowdy, barely able to leave her bedchamber and pathetically dependent upon her friend.
The charismatic Romola Garai, dressed in vivid scarlet, captures Sarah's utter self-assurance - and the pride that will be her downfall, as she fatally overplays her hand. Her brilliance and ruthless ambition might have assured her real leadership in another time; here, she must channel it into political advancement for her husband via skilful handling of the Queen, disguised as girlish affection.
But there's a fascinating ambiguity in Emma Cunniffe's Anne. Is she really so naïve, devout and easily led, or is there a crafty operator beneath the trilled, wheedling voice and damsel persona? Even when Sarah seems in control, Anne can sway her via emotional blackmail, and she's able to both draw and dispatch allies at will.
Complicating the picture further is dutiful servant Abigail Hill, in another effectively ambiguous performance from Beth Park. The plain-speaking, humble Abigail professes neutrality, but - as cousin to both Sarah and her political opposite, slippery Speaker of the Commons Robert Harley - gradually becomes an essential figure. The Queen's growing fondness for Abigail fuels Sarah's paranoia, with the latter either detecting or creating a dangerous enemy in a tragic spiral rivetingly played by Garai.
Via that shifting triangle, Edmundson - with great economy and clarity - introduces us to the era's entrenched conflicts: those angling for either Protestant or Catholic succession; the bickering Whigs and Tories; deep divisions in Europe; and debate over a union between England and Scotland. References to the latter, in particular, draw knowing laughs, but there's immediacy too in Anne's questioning of the effectiveness of a combative two-party system, and fears of a growing national debt in service of European war.
Aiding us in navigating all of that is a series of amusingly bawdy musical numbers, reflecting the efforts of contemporary satirists like Jonathan Swift. They also provide fun interludes for viewers who may be feeling overwhelmed, and some overt theatricality in a piece that's more straightforward than poetic.
But Hannah Clark's spare design aids in a swift, fluid production from Natalie Abrahami. Minimal props are given real weight (particularly the letters and pamphlets, and symbolic items like Sarah's key to the privy purse or the chamber pot borne by the comparatively unpretentious Abigail), and the multiple doors in the wood-panelled set emphasise the sense of a monarch constantly watched and beset by conflicting counsellors.
James Garnon is irresistible as the silken, duplicitous Harley, his oft-used "And I myself am not of this opinion" - when, of course, giving the Queen his opinion - recalling Francis Urquhart's "You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment".
There's great support, too, from Jonny Glynn as a swaggering Swift, Hywel Morgan as a childlike Prince George, and Chu Omambala as a tortured Marlborough. Colour-blind casting is a real asset, both in adding to a sterling company and opening up the production to modern audiences.
Like all good history plays, this will make you eager to read and explore further; Sarah Churchill's memoirs - which previously had the last word - might get a boost in popularity, ditto her costly project, Blenheim Palace. Sumptuous and enlightening.
Queen Anne at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 30 September. Book tickets here from £15
Photo credit: Marc Brenner